How can I tell if someone is having an asthma attack?

During an asthma attack, two things happen. First, inflammation starts to worsen and becomes uncontrolled. This can lead to decreased oxygen absorption, increase in mucous and, most importantly, can make the muscles around the airway tighten and pinch off the airways. Once the muscles tighten, then there is shortness of breath, wheezing and the worsening of additional asthma symptoms.

If you suspect an asthma attack, see your primary care or allergist sooner rather than later. It is often easier to treat mild exacerbations with fewer medications and faster results than if you wait until the symptoms become severe.

You often can tell when a person is having an asthma attack by the hoarse whistling sound made while exhaling. This sound, known as wheezing, occurs because air becomes trapped in the lungs. Coughing after exercise, crying or laughing are other signs that an asthma attack could begin.

Signs of an asthma attack include:

  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Sweating
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Inability to talk without stopping for a breath
  • Feelings of fear or confusion
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Think about what happens if you turn on a spigot and there's a sharp bend in the hose, what happens? The water can't get out of the hose, and stays bottled up at the point of obstruction. It's the same thing that happens when you have decreased airflow through your ventilation—you hear a whistling sound and the whistle intensifies when the airflow has trouble making it through the ventilation. That's asthma.

In patients with asthma, the trouble isn't with getting air into the lungs; it's with getting air out, and it feels like a vice is squeezing the bronchus. Once the bend in the hose is straightened, then the water is released easily. Likewise, during an asthma attack, once the obstruction is cleared—most often through medication—air is released and you can breathe smoothly.

Watch this video as Dr. Oz explains the physical reactions during an asthma attack.

Many people with asthma describe attacks as feeling as though they are breathing through a straw. People who are having an asthma attack:

  • wheeze (high-pitched breathing sounds or high-pitched dry cough)
  • cough when they try to breathe
  • breath fast
  • use their neck and belly muscles to breathe
  • feel as though they cannot catch their breath
Dr. Paul M. Ehrlich, MD
Allergist & Immunologist

During a severe asthma attack, the child sits upright and is very agitated, speaking in words only. The shoulders are hunched over, and every chest, neck and stomach muscle is enlisted in the struggle to breathe. Very loud wheezing now extends throughout the breathing cycle, both inhalation and exhalation, with a rapid respiratory rate. Bronchodilators, steroids, intravenous fluids and oxygen should have been given to the child in the emergency room or hospital by now. The peak flow will be less than 50 percent of the child's best. Blood gases—oxygen and carbon dioxide—will be abnormal even if oxygen is being administered.

Asthma Allergies Children: A Parent's Guide

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Asthma Allergies Children: A Parent's Guide

Asthma and allergies are at epidemic proportions. It doesn't have to be that way. Two experienced pediatric allergists tell everything a conscientious parent needs to know about these conditions,...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.