Asthma Attacks: Triggers, Symptoms, and Treatment

Early asthma signs and symptoms are useful to warn of a potential oncoming asthma attack.

Early Warning Signs of Asthma

Asthma attack symptoms do not usually come on without warning. If you experience one or more of the following symptoms, your body may be gearing up for an asthma attack:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Fatigue or difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling very tired or weak with exertion
  • Frequent cough
  • Wheezing with exertion
  • Headache

Heed the warning signs and act quickly if you experience any of the above symptoms to ward off an impending asthma attack. .

Asthma symptoms in kids include a persistent cough.

A Persistent Cough

Asthma cough symptoms may change from one asthma attack to the next. Sometimes, people may not have any coughing before an asthma attack. Other times, people may have persistent coughing, especially at night.

Asthma usually causes a dry hacking cough. If you have a cough that doesn't go away after you've had a cold or other illness, it might be because you have asthma. Don't bother taking cough medicine for an asthma cough. It won't help it.

Use a peak flow meter to monitor asthma symptoms in adults and kids.

Breathing Changes

Using a peak flow meter can help you know if you are about to have an asthma attack. Learn how to use the meter and know what the readings mean.

  • A reading that is between 50% and 80% of your personal best indicates that you are having an asthma attack.
  • A reading that is below 50% indicates an emergency. Use your rescue inhaler and call for medical help immediately.
  • Dial 911 if you have difficulty walking or talking because you are short of breath or if your lips turn gray or bluish. Use your rescue inhaler while you wait for paramedics to arrive.
An asthma action plan tells you what to do for symptoms of mild asthma to symptoms of severe asthma.

Adhere to Your Asthma Action Plan

Manage asthma symptoms in toddlers, children, and adults by developing and following an asthma action plan. Having a plan will help you know what to do in the event of asthma exacerbation symptoms.

  • Peak flow numbers indicated which medicines to take and when. Follow the steps as outlined by your plan and your doctor.
  • If asthma symptoms get worse, call the doctor who manages your asthma. An asthma action plan should outline what to do in the event of an emergency as well.
Difficulty breathing is one allergic asthma symptom.

Difficulty Breathing

Difficulty breathing may be a mild asthma symptom or a severe asthma symptom. It occurs when muscles in the airways tighten and the linings of airways swell up.

  • Airways overproduce mucus during an asthma attack, which may clog airways.
  • Air becomes trapped within the lungs, which makes it harder to breathe.
  • Wheezing may be the first noticeable symptom of an asthma attack. Shortness of breath and chest tightness may develop if the asthma attack gets worse. It can feel as if you are not able to get enough air.
Asthma symptoms may cause someone to hunch over and speak in one word responses.

A Change in Posture

Someone who has asthma attack symptoms or trouble breathing may lean forward instinctively. They may also speak using single words because they do not have enough air. They may be very agitated.

If a person has even more trouble breathing, they might hunch over in a position with the hands supporting the upper body in the "tripod position."

Retractions are a sign of a medical emergency of a severe asthma attack.

Alterations in Chest and Neck Movements

An asthma attack symptom that signals a medical emergency is called a retraction. It is the word used to describe the action of the chest and neck sinking in with every breath when it's hard to breathe.

Retractions are symptoms of severe asthma that signal there's not enough air reaching the lungs. It is a medical emergency. Call 911 and seek emergency medical help immediately.

Asthma symptoms in children that signify breathing problems may be getting worse include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Not being as physically active as usual
Asthma symptoms that signal an emergency include bluish lips and/or fingernails.

Bluish Fingernails and Lips

One asthma symptom that is a medical emergency is when your fingernails and/or lips turn blue or gray. This indicates there is insufficient oxygen in your blood. This is called cyanosis. Call 911 immediately if you or someone around you develops this symptom.

One asthma symptom that is a medical emergency is when your fingernails and/or lips turn blue or gray. This indicates there is insufficient oxygen in your blood. This is called cyanosis. Call 911 immediately if you or someone around you develops this symptom.

Asthma Emergency Signs

Signs of an asthma emergency include symptoms like:

  • Difficulty speaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nonstop coughing
  • Inability to exhale or inhale
  • Feeling anxious or panicky
  • Having a sweaty, pale face
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REFERENCES:

  • American Lung Association: "Assessing Asthma Control," "Asthma Attacks," "Early Warning Signs."
  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Asthma," "Asthma Action Plan," “Peak Flow Meters.”
  • Cleveland Clinic: "Symptoms of Asthma."
  • Duke University Health System.
  • DukeHealth.org: "Coughing 'til Morning, Parents Take Warning: Asthma Can Sneak Up on Some Kids."
  • KidsHealth: "Asthma Flare-Ups," "What's an Asthma Flare-up?" “When to Go to the ER if Your Child Has Asthma.”
  • Medscape Reference: "Asthma - Overview," "Asthma - Physical Examination."
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH Publication No. 07-5251, October 2006.
  • National Jewish Health: “Pediatric Asthma Symptoms.”
  • Regional Asthma Management & Prevention: "Asthma Action Plans."
  • Unity Point Health Trinity: “Pediatric Respiratory Emergencies.”
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