6 Important Questions About Asthma

What happens during an asthma attack and what does it feel like? Here’s what you should know.

Medically reviewed in December 2020

Asthma is a common respiratory condition. In the United States alone, it affects more than 20 million adults and more than 6 million children—roughly 8 percent of the population. Despite its prevalence, there is still some confusion about the condition. Here are some answers to six frequently asked questions about asthma.

What exactly is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition characterized by recurrent episodes of coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest. These episodes, which occur due to inflammation of the airways, vary in severity and frequency from one person to the next.

What happens during an asthma attack?
An asthma attack occurs when a trigger (such as a cold, allergens, smoke or exertion—more on these below) causes the airways to become more inflamed. When this happens, they narrow, which restricts the flow of air in and out of the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. In severe cases, the airways may become so inflamed that airflow is restricted completely, which causes the patient to suffocate. How often these attacks occur varies from person to person. Some people experience them only rarely while others have daily asthma attacks.

What does an asthma attack feel like?
Asthma may feel different for different people. Some describe an asthma attack as "feeling tight" or as having a difficult time getting enough air into the lung and even more trouble getting it out. For people who have never had an asthma attack, it might feel similar to a chest cold when mucous in the airways and lungs makes it more difficult to breathe. "I demonstrate to students by having them breathe only through a drinking straw for a full minute," says Karen Calhoun, MD, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) in Columbus, Ohio. "It starts out feeling easy, but by the end of a minute, most are very eager to open their mouths and take a good deep breath."

What does asthma sound like?
For some people, an asthma attack causes them to make a wheezing or whistling sound when they breathe. Others may start coughing as they try to expel the mucous lining their airways. Some people may not make any obvious sounds during an asthma attack and it may only be noticeable to a healthcare provider who listening to their lungs with a stethoscope.

What can trigger an asthma attack?
Asthma can be exacerbated by several things—allergies, environmental irritants (like paint fumes or strong cleaners), exercise, hot or cold weather, stress, physical exertion, certain medications (specifically beta blockers), menstrual cycle and respiratory infections, like the cold or flu. Many people who live with asthma learn to recognize their triggers and can either avoid them or treat their asthma before an attack becomes dangerous.

How is asthma treated?
Asthma can be treated with either quick-relief medication (bronchodilators) or with a combination of long-acting preventive medications. Quick-relief, or “rescue” inhalers are intended for occasional use, when an attack comes on suddenly or when long-acting preventive medications aren't working. Long-acting preventive medications are for people who have frequent attacks. They are intended to prevent symptoms but are not used to treat asthma attacks. Learning to recognize and avoid triggers is key and some patients need to meet with an allergist to determine what's causing their asthma attacks. Every patient should work with their healthcare provider to come up with an asthma action plan, which details what to do to control symptoms and how to respond when an asthma attack occurs.

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