Many individuals with asthma are familiar with the experience of an asthma attack — an acute flare-up of symptoms defined by sudden shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. These exacerbations vary in intensity and require efficient and prompt treatment.
Management of asthma attacks is twofold. To immediately address symptoms in the moment, work with your provider to identify your asthma attack warning signs and establish a treatment strategy. In the longer term, identify and avoid triggers and stay on track with treatment, so as to reduce the frequency and intensity of these flare-ups.
Here’s more on recognizing, treating, and preventing asthma attacks.
Effective management of an asthma attack starts by recognizing the signs and symptoms and understanding what to do when they occur.
While individual experiences of an asthma attack may vary, these are some common signs and symptoms. Your doctor can help you in identifying your individual warning signs of an asthma attack.
Severe shortness of breath
Severe chest tightness or pain
Coughing and/or wheezing
Low peak expiratory flow (PEF) readings
The following symptoms of a severe asthma attack warrant immediate medical attention:
Severe breathlessness or wheezing, especially at night or in the early morning
Difficulty speaking due to shortness of breath
Straining your chest muscles to breathe
Low PEF readings
No improvement from quick-relief medication
Everyone with asthma should have an asthma action plan that documents their treatment needs, including what steps to take when asthma symptoms intensify. Work with your doctor to create your individual asthma action plan.
If and when you experience a flare-up of asthma symptoms, follow the steps in your treatment plan. If your PEF readings fall between 51% to 79% of your baseline, a common first step is to take quick-relief or “rescue” asthma medications.
These medications are taken on an as-needed basis, as prescribed by your doctor, and relax airway muscles to open the lungs. They relieve shortness of breath and wheezing within minutes and can stop an asthma attack in progress.
Common quick-relief asthma medications include:
Albuterol (ProAir® HFA, Proventil® HFA, and Ventolin® HFA)
Levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA®)
Inhalers are the most common form of quick-relief asthma medications. Albuterol and levalbuterol are also available as a liquid solution for nebulizer use.
A quick-relief medication may sufficiently relieve symptoms and improve PEF readings. If symptoms do not improve, emergency medical care may be necessary. Your asthma action plan should help you determine when to seek emergency care.
In many cases, asthma attacks may be preventable. When followed on an ongoing basis, the steps below can help lower your chances of experiencing an asthma attack.
1. Follow your treatment plan and take maintenance medications as prescribed (if applicable).
Many individuals with moderate to severe asthma take long-term maintenance medication in addition to a quick-relief medication.
These medications ease inflammation in the airways, preventing exacerbations and controlling symptoms. You must take them as prescribed every day to experience their benefits.
There are two main types of long-term asthma control medications:
Combination inhalers that contain both corticosteroids and long-acting beta agonists (LABAs) including fluticasone and salmeterol (Advair Diskus®); budesonide and formoterol (Symbicort®); mometasone and formoterol (Dulera®); and fluticasone and vilanterol (Breo Ellipta®)
2. Identify and avoid triggers.
Asthma attacks may be caused by a variety of triggers including:
Other illness such as a cold or flu
Each individual has different triggers. To identify yours, make a note of your asthma symptoms as they appear, including environmental factors that may have contributed to them. As you begin to learn your triggers, take necessary precautions to avoid them.
3. Avoid all cigarette smoke, including secondhand and thirdhand smoke.
Everyone with asthma can benefit from limiting their exposure to cigarette smoke, a frequent trigger of asthma attacks.
In addition to refraining from smoking yourself, avoid exposure to secondhand smoke and thirdhand smoke, the residual smoke that remains on clothing or surrounding indoor surfaces. (Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for smoking cessation resources if needed.)
4. Allergy-proof your home.
Allergic asthma accounts for 60% of all asthma cases in the U.S. and is triggered by allergens such as household dust mites, pet dander, and pollen. There are many ways to reduce the presence of allergens in your home, including:
Using the AC rather than opening windows when pollen counts are high
Using a dehumidifier to keep indoor air dry, which will in turn prevent mold growth and dust mites
Vacuuming at least once a week, ideally using a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, which catches smaller particles like allergens
5. Stay current with vaccines.
It’s especially important for those with asthma to stay current with vaccines, as respiratory infections like the flu can become more serious and/or trigger asthma symptoms.
Check with your doctor about which vaccines you need. For detailed vaccine recommendations by age group, reference the CDC’s recommended immunization schedules for children and adolescents and adults.
Breathe easier with a better pharmacy
Alto Pharmacy is here every step of the way to help you manage your asthma. Our team of pharmacists is available to answer questions about your medications, and we offer free, same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills in our app.
Reach out by phone at 1-800-874-5881 or in-app messaging to learn how we can support your treatment plan.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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