Living with asthma is something that under 8%¹ of Americans experience yearly. Since there isn't a cure for asthma, it is critical to understand how to manage it when attacks happen and what signs of those asthma attacks could be. In 2020, there were 1,803,554 asthma attacks in people under 18 alone.
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According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology² (ACAAI), an asthma attack happens when an obstruction in the air passages impacts breathing. The air in the lungs will have difficulty leaving, entering, or both during an asthma attack.
If you have not experienced an asthma attack, there are some symptoms and signs to look for to know it is happening.
Coughing will start to increase as the obstruction happens.
Gasping for air and shortness of breath will happen almost instantly.
Complaints of chest pain or tightness when trying to breathe.
Children may start to wheeze.
Those using a peak flow meter³ will have lower readings before the attack.
The truth is that asthmatic people can experience one, multiple, or even all of these symptoms when having an attack.
While the actual cause of a person developing asthma is still widely unknown, there is enough evidence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention⁴ (CDC), to know it is related to environmental factors and genetics. Some asthmatics have different triggers and risk factors that can encourage an asthma attack.
A handful of common triggers have been identified by the CDC and several studies over the past few decades that can affect most asthmatics similarly. This is because a person with asthma has a sensitivity or known allergy to the trigger, which includes the following:
Dust and dust mites in the environment—in the home or work area.
Lingering tobacco smoke from one or more smokers
Unwanted pests release dander into the environment
Pets also release unwanted dander and hair into the environment
Smoke from factories and cars
Excessive wildfire and structure fire smoke
Strong-smelling cleaning supplies
Mold and mildew
Food and food additives
Several triggers can alter the environment where an asthmatic person resides, works, or attends school. When these triggers get into that person’s space, they can cause inflammation in the airways and trigger an asthma attack. This is more likely the longer the person is exposed to the trigger.
In addition to triggers that can trigger an asthma attack, some risk factors can cause you to develop asthma and asthma attacks later in life.
Obesity and excessive weight gain
Taking up smoking
Moving to an environment with increased air pollution
Numerous respiratory infections over time
Parents who may have been diagnosed with asthma
These risk factors often indicate adults who will develop asthma over time. Those who suffer from excessive weight gain and remain at an unhealthy weight for years may find themselves developing asthma. This is also true for those new to smoking or increasing their daily cigarettes.
There are some cases where a person has long-term damage to their lungs and passageways from illnesses and infections. When this happens, asthma can develop later on and begin triggering asthma attacks. Exposure to risk factors is behind adults diagnosed with asthma later instead of as children.
Once you are diagnosed with asthma, it is critical to start preparing yourself with treatment. The best way to protect yourself against an asthma attack is to take your prescribed medication regularly and keep your inhaler with you.
The prescribed medication, such as steroids or leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTAs), will allow your airways to open up sooner and reduce inflammation. Medicine is critical for prevention and keeps the attacks minimal when they happen.
There may be times when you cannot access your medication or your inhaler. In these cases, you need to have natural or home remedies that you can turn to so that you can temporarily diffuse the situation. These are not meant to be used regularly and are only temporary options until you can get medical assistance.
If you or a loved one starts to feel as though they are losing control of their breathing, pursed lip breathing is a technique encouraged by the American Lung Association.⁵ There are several steps to this process—getting your breathing pace slower and calming down, so the attack slows.
Sit down and relax your neck and back
Slowly start breathing in through your nose while your lips are pursed together
When you breathe, move your lips into a puckering position and release
Slowly release all of the oxygen from your lungs
Repeat as necessary until your breathing is under control and you are calm. Once you are relaxed, get your inhaler and treat your asthma. In many cases, the attack should be over. If it is not and you cannot control your breathing, you will need to call in medical assistance.
Another breathing technique that can be used to slow the attack of asthma is belly breathing. For some, shortness of breath means they need to breathe from their belly and reduce the amount of energy used to breathe. This can take up to 10 minutes to calm your breathing and slow it down.
Choose to sit up straight or lie down with your hands on your belly.
Take a deep breath through your nose and allow the air to fill your belly.
Once it is full and swollen, where you can see it physically full of air, start releasing it.
You want to pursue your lips and slowly release air so that it takes longer and your airways are not trying to fill with the air immediately.
Repeat these steps until your breathing has calmed down and you are relaxed.
This is not an instant fix, so be prepared to take a few minutes for this exercise. Even if you start to feel your breathing slow, you want to ensure it is still slowing for a few minutes before you get up.
While it may not sound like the first option for treatment, caffeine is chemically similar to asthma medication used to open the airways and reduce inflammation. When an attack is starting, and you are not able to get your inhaler, having a soda or other caffeinated beverage can help relieve the symptoms of an attack, at least temporarily.
Natural oils have anti-inflammatory properties and assist the body with healing. One of those is eucalyptus oil, which is used for many reactions and inflammations. When it comes to asthma, eucalyptus oil has the potential to be beneficial.
When you feel inflammation building up in your airways and your coughing starts to get worse, you can use eucalyptus oil in one of the following ways.
Add it to hot water and sit your head over the bowl. Breathe the oil into your lungs and directly onto the inflammation. This is great for sinuses, opening up passageways in your head, and asthma in your chest.
Apply a few drops of eucalyptus oil to your chest above your airways, so the oil seeps through the skin and into the lungs. This absorption may take a few minutes, but you will feel the inflammation start to subside and start breathing easier.
Inhale the eucalyptus oil directly off a towel when you breathe in during belly or pursed lip breathing.
Remember that eucalyptus oil is safe for most asthmatics, except those who may be pregnant. If you are pregnant, you may not want to use eucalyptus oil and focus on breathing techniques instead.
To prevent asthma attacks, you must take all of the necessary precautions to avoid a situation where they arise. These precautions are below:
Take all medication as prescribed by your doctor.
Change any risk factors in your life that may trigger an asthma attack.
Stay vaccinated regularly and annually with vaccines that affect respiratory diseases.
Relocate to a new home or employer if the environment affects your breathing.
It is up to you to take responsibility, especially once you know what your triggers and risks are for your asthma. For example, if factory smoke is a trigger, you want to avoid living and working in an area that is surrounded by factory smoke.
This is also true if you have food triggers like sulfites. Make sure you avoid all processed foods and eat a whole-food diet if that triggers your asthma.
There are times when an asthma attack cannot be prevented. If you go through an asthma attack unexpectedly or your asthma is poorly managed, there is a chance of complications, including:
Inability to be physically active
Without proper treatment, asthma attacks can lead to more severe complications that need extensive medical treatment and could permanently alter your life. These include:
Increased risk of pneumonia
Increased risk of infection
These conditions are serious and may require direct medical attention. For those with asthma, once pneumonia sets in, the inflammation in the passageways allows the infection to spread and makes it harder to treat than for someone without asthma.
Some asthma attacks are so severe that, by the time your breathing has slowed, one of your lungs could have collapsed. In extreme cases, your body could also go into respiratory failure⁶ due to the attack.
Suppose you are regularly experiencing shortness of breath and finding it difficult to breathe at specific points of the day. In that case, you should visit a doctor immediately to see if you have asthma. If you have already been diagnosed with asthma, you should see a doctor if your inhaler is not working with attacks or they are being triggered rapidly, and you do not know the cause for the increase.
It is important to understand asthma and be responsible for it daily. However, if there are any new changes and something is making you weary about your condition, you should always seek a medical opinion.
Asthma attacks can be monitored and reduced with the help of medicine and an inhaler explicitly prescribed for you and your inflammation levels. There may be times when an inhaler is not available, and an attack may occur. If this happens, you need to be aware of a few remedies to help you get your breathing under control and get to your medication.
These are not meant to be cures but good ways to keep the attacks from worsening and reversing them as soon as possible. Those with asthma should know not only the signs of an asthma attack but also the triggers that can cause them and how they could prevent them.
Most recent national asthma data | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Asthma attack | American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
Asthma | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Learn how to control asthma | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Pursed lip breathing | Amerian Lung Association
Common asthma triggers | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Asthma risk factors (2015)
Belly breathing | Amerian Lung Association
Caffeine for asthma (2001)
Eucalyptus oil allergy symptoms and diagnosis | Allergy Symptoms
Eucalyptus oil for asthma | Allergy Symptoms
Asthma | Health Direct
Uncontrolled asthma’s effects over time | Asthma.com
Asthma | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Management and treatment | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Asthma attacks: What to do when you don’t have your inhaler | Revere Health
Asthma symptoms | American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology