Are You Having an Asthma Attack?

By Arielle Mitton
Medically reviewed
October 5, 2021

Asthma is a long-term, inflammatory condition that affects the airways in your lungs.

It’s a widespread disease, impacting roughly 300 million people globally. Asthma can affect anyone at any age, including pediatric patients.

It’s one of the leading causes of hospitalizations among children under the age of five in the United States. 

When you have asthma, your lungs are hyperreactive to internal and environmental triggers.

When you come into contact with a substance or experience that triggers you, the airways in your lungs become inflamed, swollen, and narrow.

The smooth muscles that surround the airways in your lungs can spasm or tighten, and your body may begin producing excess mucus, or phlegm, that congests your airways and makes it difficult to breathe. 

When people experience mild asthma symptoms, they may cough, wheeze, or experience shortness of breath.

These symptoms are usually quickly reversible, especially if they use a rescue inhaler or another appropriate medical treatment to address their condition. 

People with asthma will experience initial symptoms that gradually worsen into an asthma attack during more severe episodes.

During an asthma attack, airways become so inflamed and constricted that lung function declines and breathing becomes difficult.

Wheezing and coughing become more pronounced, and patients may feel breathless, experience chest tightness, or have difficulty sleeping because of the severity of their condition. 

Severe asthma attacks can require medical treatment. In some cases, they can become life-threatening if not appropriately treated.

If you or a loved one are experiencing wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath, these may be signs of an asthma attack.

If your symptoms are mild, make an appointment with your doctor to make an asthma action plan to keep your condition under control.

However, if you are struggling to breathe, have difficulty speaking, or notice your lips, face, or mouth turning blue, you may require emergency care. Call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest hospital immediately. 

In this article, I’ll talk about the signs of an asthma attack, what to do if you’re having one, and what can trigger an attack.

I’ll also explain what to do after an asthma attack, outline some steps you can take to avoid future attacks, and give some direction about when you should see a doctor.

Experiencing asthma like symptoms? Chat with a doctor today for only $23

Chat Now

Asthma Attack Signs

Researchers are still studying what causes asthma, but we know of a few factors that put people at higher risk for the disease.

People who have a family history of asthma or personal history of allergies are more likely to develop the condition, as are people who live in or are frequently exposed to a work environment with pollution, chemicals, vapors, or other airborne irritants.

Therefore, current and former smokers are at higher risk of developing asthma. 

Asthma attacks can come on suddenly and worsen quickly.

So it’s essential to know the warning signs and symptoms to identify when you will have trouble breathing and be able to quickly find relief.

Coughing

Many patients who experience asthma attacks will develop a dry or unproductive cough when they begin to have a flare-up.

When an asthma trigger is inhaled, the airways become inflamed and irritated, causing muscle spasms and prompting mild to severe coughing fits along with other symptoms.

Feeling breathless

Feeling short of breath, having difficulty breathing, or being unable to take a deep breath are some of the hallmark symptoms of an asthma attack.

Patients with asthma have a sensitive immune system, with airways that can become swollen or inflamed when they come into contact with a trigger.

When that happens, the space for regular airflow in and out of the lungs becomes constricted, making it difficult to breathe.

Tightness in chest

For some patients, chest tightness can occur during an asthma attack, or as a warning sign that one is about to develop.

Patients experience this symptom because when their asthma flares, the smooth muscles surrounding the airways in the chest can spasm and constrict, reducing airflow and leading to chest pain, pressure, or tightness. 

Wheezing

Wheezing is another common symptom of an asthma attack.

It is a high-pitch, whistling, squeaking, or rattling sound that patients can sometimes hear when they breathe in and out. 

Difficulty breathing & talking

When people with asthma experience severe lung inflammation, it restricts their ability to move air in and out of their bodies.

When that happens, they may lose the ability to breathe or speak normally. 

Struggling to breathe to the point of being unable to speak is a sign that you are having a life-threatening asthma attack and that your condition requires in person medical care.

If you or someone you know is experiencing this symptom, call 9-1-1 for an ambulance or immediately go to the nearest emergency room. 

Feeling lightheaded

When an asthma attack makes it difficult to breathe normally, you may not absorb enough oxygen for your body to function correctly.

Subsequently, decreased levels of oxygen can make some patients feel dizzy and lightheaded.

Trouble sleeping

For some, asthma symptoms can worsen at night; coughing, wheezing, congestion, and muscle pain can lead to poor quality or less sleep than they require to function normally.

Unfortunately, research shows that missing a good night’s rest can make asthma worse, creating a vicious cycle that may need medical help to relieve.

Low energy or feeling tired

When you are in the midst of an asthma attack, it puts a significant amount of stress on your body.

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, asthma can deplete your oxygen levels, disrupt your daily activities, cause you to lose sleep, and make it difficult for you to exercise.

As a result, you may find that you have low energy or feel tired during an asthma flare-up.

What to Do If You Are Having an Asthma Attack

Asthma attacks can be scary, but symptoms are often reversible when treated.

Whether you are experiencing a mild asthma attack or more severe symptoms, plenty of asthma medications and inhalers are on the market to help you soothe your symptoms and find relief.

Seek immediate medical attention

Severe asthma can become a medical emergency if improperly treated or under-treated.

If you are struggling to breathe or talk, experience worsening wheezing or coughing, or notice your lips, face, or mouth turning blue, call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately.

If you are suffering from asthma symptoms for the first time and have never received a medical diagnosis of asthma before, call your healthcare provider.

A doctor will need to evaluate your breathing, rule out other conditions, and give you a treatment plan that improves your symptoms.

Medications/medical devices

There are several treatments on the market to help you manage your asthma and improve your symptoms. 

Common medications include:

  • Quick-relief: Often used in rescue inhalers and other devices, these medicines dilate airways and improve symptoms immediately.
  • Controller: These treatments help asthma patients keep their asthma adequately controlled and prevent asthma attacks.
  • Combination: These medicines combine quick relief and long-term control for patients who require both.
  • Biologics: These treatments help people with persistent, severe asthma address their symptoms.

Patients take these asthma medications as oral tablets or through an inhaler, atomizer, or nebulizer.

Your doctor will consider your age, lifestyle, asthma condition, and other factors when suggesting a medication or device.

Asthma Attack Triggers

Every patient has personal asthma triggers that affect their lungs. Common triggers include:

  • Cigarette smoke (tobacco smoke)
  • Environmental factors like air pollution, airborne chemicals, vapors, or gases
  • Seasonal or food allergies like mold, tree pollen, pet dander, dust mites, and hay fever
  • Exposure to cold air, cold weather, or sudden changes in temperature 
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Viral infections like bronchitis, flu, the common cold, or COVID-19

Asthma triggers can develop and evolve.

Note your symptoms so you can identify new triggers and let your doctor know of any new substances that exacerbate your asthma. You may find it helpful to keep a symptom journal to identify triggers.

What to Do After an Asthma Attack

How well you recover after an asthma attack depends on what triggered the attack, and how severe it was.

If you have experienced a mild or moderate asthma attack that you have treated with medication at home, the best thing you can do is rest and recover.

Don’t go back to work or start any regular activities until you are feeling better.

You may also want to call your doctor or schedule an appointment to discuss your episode in case they want to adjust your medications or add another treatment to your asthma action plan.  

If you have recently suffered a severe attack or required hospitalization for an asthma attack, make an appointment for a follow-up with your doctor as soon as possible.

You’ll want to make sure that you are under medical supervision so that you can prevent any new flare-ups and recover completely.

Preventing Asthma Attacks

The most important way to prevent asthma attacks is to follow the asthma treatment plan your doctor recommends.

In addition, there are lifestyle changes you can make to avoid exposure to irritants and reduce your risk of a symptom flare-up.

  • Avoid airborne irritants: Reduce your exposure to cigarette smoke, chemicals, vapors, and pollution.
  • Prevent yourself from falling ill: Get vaccinated for influenza and COVID-19, wash your hands regularly, and avoid exposing yourself to others who are sick.
  • Clean your home regularly: Dust, mop, and regularly clean bedding, towels, and curtains to reduce your exposure to dust mites, pet dander, and mold.
  • Keep your allergies at bay: Stay away from areas where you might come into contact with tree pollen or other seasonal allergens.

Experiencing asthma like symptoms? Chat with a doctor today for only $23

Chat Now

When to See a Doctor

Asthma can develop and evolve with time, so patients with the condition must remain under a doctor’s regular care.

If you are experiencing asthma symptoms for the first time, or if your asthma symptoms have shifted, changed, or seem to be triggered by something new, make an appointment to have your condition evaluated.

If you are suffering from severe asthma symptoms and are coughing or wheezing, struggling to breathe, having a difficult time speaking, or you notice your lips or face turning blue, you may need immediate medical attention. Call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest hospital.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you tell the difference between an asthma attack and a panic attack?
While asthma attacks and panic attacks can both cause laborious breathing and chest pain, only asthma attacks will also include wheezing and coughing. Panic attacks, on the other hand, may also cause you to feel tingly or sweaty, to feel heightened anxiety, nausea, or to feel like you are detached from reality.
What do you do if you're having an asthma attack and don't have your inhaler?
Stay calm if you begin to experience an asthma attack and do not have your medicine on hand. Sit upright, take deep, slow breaths, and, if possible, move away from any substances that might be triggering your symptoms. If you continue to have worsening symptoms, call 9-1-1 or seek emergency medical attention immediately.
Do you have asthma if you've never had an asthma attack?
If you are wondering whether or not you have asthma, make an appointment to talk to your doctor. Some people's asthma can be mild enough that they never experience intense symptoms or asthma attacks. Others may have symptoms similar to those of asthma, but the symptoms are due to another unrelated condition. The only way to treat your symptoms appropriately is to be medically evaluated and accurately diagnosed.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Arielle Mitton

Dr. Mitton is a board certified internal medicine physician with over 6 years of experience in urgent care and additional training in geriatric medicine. She completed her trainings at Mount Sinai Hospital and UCLA. She is on the board of the Hyperemesis Research Foundation to help women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum.