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Most people take breathing for granted. After all, it is a natural, involuntary process regulated silently by the brain stem. But for individuals suffering from asthma, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath becomes a scary reality.

As a chronic disease of the respiratory system, asthma can cause swelling, inflammation, and narrowing of the airways, making it harder to breathe. During an asthma attack, these symptoms are suddenly amplified due to an asthma trigger. Common triggers include:

  • Pollen
  • Mold
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Exercise
  • Cold, dry air
  • Respiratory infections

Once triggered, the muscles of the airway tighten in a sudden event called a bronchospasm; the airways become further swollen and produce a thick mucus. Together, these events make it extremely difficult to breathe. Apart from wheezing, coughing, and rapid breathing, other symptoms of an asthma attack, especially a severe one, can include chest pressure, difficulty talking, pallor, and blue lips or fingernails.

 Inhalers are used to self-medicate during an asthma attack.

Image Source: Seb Oliver

Typically, asthma attacks are treated by first using an inhaler (or a nebulizer for smaller children) to self-medicate with a bronchodilator like albuterol. This medication opens up the airway. Asthma attacks are considered severe if the patient is unable to speak without losing breath or if the patient suffers from non-stop wheezing; in case of a severe asthma attack, call 911 immediately. At the emergency room, asthma patients may be given additional bronchodilators, or corticosteroids. Corticosteroids are used to decrease inflammation and can be delivered orally or through vein injections. For extremely severe and potentially fatal attacks, asthma patients may be placed on mechanical ventilation to provide oxygen directly to the lungs.

Asthma attacks can be scary, causing panic and anxiety during their sudden onset. However, it is important to keep calm and follow the steps planned with your doctor. Check with a physician regularly to determine the status of your asthma using a peak flow meter, and decide the best steps in case of an emergency. Peak flow meters can be used at home for individuals with moderate to severe asthma. Declining peak flow values indicate an increased risk for an asthma attack and worsening of condition. For those with asthma, keep an inhaler on hand in case of an emergency, and educate your friends and family so they can help you if necessary.

Feature Image Source: Pick and Inhaler, Any Inahler by Alan Levine

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