An asthma attack has been described as feeling like a huge weight is on your chest, with that weight being so heavy that you struggle to draw breath.
The attack happens when the symptoms of asthma - a condition that inflames the airways to the lungs - get worse, leading to problems breathing.
Asthma is common, affecting more than 339 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization, and around half of those may experience at least 1 attack in a year. In the UK, an asthma attack occurs every 10 seconds.
Though attacks may be quite common among people with asthma, knowing how to recognise the signs of an attack and understanding why they happen can help you to manage them better and even prevent one.
What are the early signs of an asthma attack?
An asthma attack can come on without warning, but signs that you may have an attack can start as early as 24 to 48 hours before it actually happens.
Feeling short of breath, tight in the chest, having an increasingly bad cough, not being able to exercise or complete your daily tasks in the normal way or needing to use your inhaler more frequently than usual in a week may all be signs that an attack is coming on.
If you notice any of these symptoms, book an emergency appointment with a doctor or nurse. They can guide you in how to reduce your risk of an attack and on what to do if an attack does come on.
Asthma attack symptoms
When an asthma attack does occur, the symptoms can be mild or severe, but the most common signs include:
- making a whistling sound when you breathe
- feeling like you can’t draw in a full breath
- a tight chest
- faster breathing
How long an attack lasts can also vary. A mild attack may last a few minutes, while more severe ones can continue for hours or days.
If you’re about to have a severe asthma attack, you may notice you have difficulty completing a sentence and that your peak flow (a measure of how fast you can blow air out of your lungs) is low.
As it becomes more severe, your fingers or lips may turn blue, your heart may beat faster than usual or you may feel faint.
If you’re experiencing any of the signs of a severe attack you should call an ambulance.
What an asthma attack feels like
How an attack feels will vary for different people, but some describe it as feeling like you’re being smothered with a pillow or trying to breathe through a hollow straw while wearing a tight corset.
These feelings may make more sense if you know what’s happening in the body during an attack.
If you come into contact with something that triggers your asthma, such as air pollution or stress, the insides of your airways swell up, meaning there is less space for air to flow in and out of your lungs. The muscles around the airways can also seize up, which makes the airway even more narrow, making it harder to breathe.
What causes an asthma attack?
The cause is not entirely understood, but some people are more at risk than others.
If you’re allergic to grass, tree or weed pollen, being exposed to that allergen can trigger an attack, making the summer hay fever season a potentially difficult time for anyone who has both asthma and hay fever.
Other known triggers include having an infection like the flu, sudden changes in the weather, stress, pollution in the air and vigorous exercise.
What to do if you have an asthma attack
If you’re having - or think you’re having - an attack, sit up straight in a chair and take long, deep breaths to help you stay calm and regulate your breathing.
If you have an inhaler, take up to 10 puffs as needed, with 1 puff every 60 seconds.
If your symptoms don’t improve within 10 minutes, call an ambulance.
You should also call for an ambulance immediately if any of the following applies:
- you don’t have an inhaler
- the inhaler isn’t helping to relieve your symptoms
- your symptoms are getting worse even though you’re using your inhaler
- if you have any severe symptoms of an asthma attack
While you wait for emergency help, continue to use your inhaler as above and focus on deep breathing.
Do you need to see a doctor for an asthma attack?
If the attack subsides and you can manage the symptoms, you may not need to call for an ambulance, but you should still see a doctor that same day.
A doctor will be able to discuss your treatment plan with you, and help you establish how best to manage your condition to reduce the risk of having another attack.
You can find out more about asthma and how to prevent and treat future attacks.