Asthma is a serious medical condition that causes your airways to become inflamed and constricted. This can result in symptoms ranging from minor and annoying, such as wheezing and coughing, to severe and even life-threatening, such as chest tightness and difficulty breathing. If left untreated, asthma can have numerous short-term and long-term effects that can impact your quality of life and put your life at risk.
Here's what you should know about keeping your asthma symptoms under control by working closely with your healthcare provider and following your treatment plan as directed.
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It's estimated that more than 25 million¹ people in America live with asthma. While every person diagnosed with asthma may experience recurring symptoms, most people with asthma don't have severe asthma.
According to the American Lung Association², severe asthma occurs in 5–10% of people with asthma. Sometimes referred to as uncontrolled asthma, severe asthma symptoms don't get better with typical asthma treatments.
Asthma attacks can be fatal. Around 4,145³ Americans, or 13 out of every one million, died from an asthma attack in 2020. In most cases, people with asthma can manage their condition by avoiding triggers, taking preventative medication, and taking medication when they experience symptoms.
However, these treatment options are not always effective for people with severe asthma. Because of this, when they experience an asthma attack, their lungs are unable to get an adequate amount of oxygen due to the severe inflammation and mucus that could be constricting them. If left untreated, a severe asthma attack could lead to death.
If you've been diagnosed with severe asthma, your symptoms may differ from someone else with the same diagnosis. Common symptoms of a severe asthma attack include:
Tightness in your chest
Shortness of breath
Coughing (particularly in the morning and at night)
Blue fingernails or lips
Feeling agitated or confused
Asthma symptoms that don't go away with medication
An asthma attack can develop quickly or gradually build up for several days. Knowing your particular asthma signs can help you treat them as early as possible before they worsen and potentially lead to an asthma attack.
Warning signs for an asthma attack could include:
Shortness of breath
Increased coughing or wheezing
Tightness in your chest
Having trouble sleeping due to asthma symptoms at night
Using a rescue inhaler more frequently than normal
Having trouble performing normal daily tasks
Your healthcare provider can help you identify your specific asthma attack warning signs so that you can take the necessary steps to prevent them from turning into an emergency.
The causes of an asthma attack can vary from person to person. If you have an overly sensitive immune system, your bronchial tubes can become swollen and inflamed when exposed to particular triggers. Triggers that could cause an asthma attack include:
Upper respiratory infections
Breathing in cool, dry air
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Anyone who has been diagnosed with asthma has an increased risk of experiencing an asthma attack. You could be more likely to have a severe asthma attack if you:
Have had a severe asthma attack before
Have had to go to the hospital because of asthma
Use more than two rescue inhalers a month
Have asthma attacks with little to no warning
Have other serious health conditions, such as lung disease
While anyone with asthma can experience a fatal asthmatic episode, certain risk factors could make you more likely to die from asthma. These include:
Being an adult over the age of 65
Being a woman
Being a non-Hispanic black person
If your healthcare provider suspects that you have asthma, they will perform a series of tests to provide a diagnosis. This could include:
Be sure to tell them about any symptoms you've experienced, including when they started and how often you experience them, as well as your family medical history and any medications you're currently taking. Don't forget to mention any allergens in your home that could trigger asthma, including pets, pollen, dust mites, and/or cigarette smoke.
Along with looking at your eyes, ears, throat, and lungs, they may review x-rays of your chest and sinuses.
Lung function tests can let them know how easily you can breathe. This often requires inhaling a medication called a bronchodilator that is used to open your airways. If you can breathe significantly better with the bronchodilator, you may be diagnosed with asthma.
If you have trouble breathing or suspect that you may have asthma, don't wait to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. Getting a diagnosis as soon as possible is the best way to manage your condition and prevent dangerous asthma attacks.
The best way to prevent an asthma attack is to work with your healthcare provider to create a personalized treatment plan. This treatment plan will be used to manage your asthma symptoms so that they don't lead to an asthma attack. Your personalized asthma treatment plan should include four parts:
If you know what factors trigger your asthma symptoms and attacks, you can take proactive steps to minimize contact with them as much as possible. Thinking back to when you've experienced symptoms or an attack can help you identify potential triggers. Be sure to write down any patterns you may notice and discuss them with your healthcare provider.
Most asthma medications are breathed in through a device called a nebulizer. While inhalers seem simple enough to use, it's estimated that as many as half of all people who have been prescribed an inhaler don't use it properly. To ensure that you receive the proper dose of asthma medication, ask your healthcare provider to watch you use your inhaler.
Paying close attention to your warning symptoms can make a big difference in managing your long-term symptoms and preventing severe asthmatic episodes. If you have trouble identifying your symptoms before they are severe, talk to your healthcare provider about using a peak flow meter, which can monitor the condition of your airways long before you notice any symptoms.
Talk with your healthcare provider about the specific steps to take if you experience an asthma attack or emergency. Being prepared can help get your asthma under control as quickly as possible and even save your life.
If left untreated, asthma can negatively impact your overall quality of life. Complications from asthma include:
Physical inactivity (due to fatigue and/or striving to avoid triggers)
Side effects from asthma medications such as weight gain, elevated blood pressure, insomnia, infections, etc.
Mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression
Working closely with your healthcare provider to identify your asthma warning signs and avoid your specific triggers is critical to keeping your condition under control. If you experience unmanageable symptoms with at-home treatment or get worse over time, such as shortness of breath, blue lips, or difficulty speaking, don't wait to seek emergency medical help. Asthma attacks can progress from mild to severe and can turn fatal in a short amount of time.
Asthma is a chronic medical condition that can cause symptoms with the potential to develop suddenly and progress quickly. While asthma can be fatal if left untreated, particularly if it's severe, the good news is that there are steps to prevent severe asthma attacks from taking place.
By recognizing what factors trigger your asthmatic episodes, such as pets or cigarette smoke, taking your asthma medications as prescribed, and taking the necessary steps to treat your symptoms when you first notice warning signs, you can prevent an asthma attack. If you're having difficulty managing your asthma even with medication or you experience symptoms that don't respond to medication, be sure to seek emergency care right away.
Asthma facts and figures | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Severe asthma | American Lung Association
Most recent national asthma data | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
What to expect during a severe asthma attack | Very Well Health
What do rescue inhalers do? (2018)
Asthma as the underlying cause of death | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Preventing asthma episodes and controlling your asthma | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
What to know about portable nebulizers for asthma | Very Well Health
Medical and lifestyle complications of Asthma | Very Well Health
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