When Asthma Attacks: How to Know If It’s an Emergency

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All the signs are there. You know you’re having an asthma flare-up — but do you need to call 911? Get the facts now so you’re prepared if you ever need to know.

What Causes an Asthma Attack

Asthma triggers cause muscles around your airways to tighten. They also cause inflammation. This makes the lining of the airways swell. And thick, sticky mucus forms.

The result: breathing becomes more difficult.

As Joseph Allen, MD, Family Medicine of Vandalia, explains, “A lot of people relate it to breathing through a straw … where they just feel like they cannot move the air in and out of their lungs. So, you get this inflammation, it constricts the bronchioles (small branches of the main airways).”

Click play to watch the video or read video transcript.

Most asthma attacks are moderate flare-ups. In this case, symptoms include:

  • Tightening chest
  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Tiring or getting out of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Quickened breathing at rest

When to Call 911

Asthma attacks can rise to a life-threatening, emergency level when you have the following symptoms:

When Asthma Attacks - How to Know If It’s an Emergency - In Content
  • Severe breathing difficulty
  • Being too short of breath to talk or walk
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy, like you’re going to pass out
  • Lips or fingers turning blue
  • The strength of your exhalations measure under 50 percent of your personal best on a peak flow monitor

Severe asthma attacks like this can cause brain damage or death. This is because your lungs lose their ability to take in life-giving oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.

Call 911 — or get someone to call for you — when you experience any of the above symptoms, especially if you cannot immediately relieve them with your prescribed quick-relief medication.

After an Asthma Attack

For several days following a flare-up you are at greater risk of additional asthma attacks. During this time period:

  • Avoid your asthma triggers
  • Use a peak flow monitor to keep track of your breathing
  • As always, take your medications as instructed, even when you feel great

When you stray from your doctor’s orders regarding asthma treatment, you put yourself at risk of a serious condition called airway remodeling.

Severe asthma attacks can cause brain damage or death.

In this condition, your lungs become scarred. This reduces the effectiveness of your asthma medications and weakens your ability to breathe. You can avoid airway remodeling by working with your doctor to develop and maintain a treatment plan that works for you, reducing your risk of asthma attacks.

If you need medical assistance, contact CareFinders at 1-866-608-FIND to make an appointment with a physician, or call 911 immediately if it is an emergency.

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Answer a few questions and we'll provide you with a list of primary care providers that best fit your needs.

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