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Recognizing and Managing Asthma Emergencies

When we breathe, air is channelled into our lungs via branching airways. People who have asthma are often prone to suffer from breathing problems if they are exposed to certain triggers such as cigarette smoke or even dust, due to their sensitive airways. Their airways respond to the trigger by constricting and making it hard for the casualty to breathe.

Asthma Inhaler

Many people who are prone to asthma attacks carry asthma inhalers as shown in the picture above.

The three main aspects of constricting airways are:

  • Extra mucus being produced, causing the airways to get narrowed
  • Inflammation or  swelling of the inner walls of the airways
  • The tightening of the muscles forming the airways

Causes of Asthma

The reason for people developing asthma is still unknown but many people are often born with the condition. In many cases, family members such as parents, brothers, sisters or other close relatives have a history of breathing related problems such as hay fever, eczema and asthma. An asthma attack can occur at any age, therefore, vigilance is required if a family member has a tendency to develop the condition.

Often exposure to triggers such as cigarette smoke can develop symptoms of asthma during pregnancy or childhood. The following are the general causes of breathing problems such as asthma:

  • Hereditary factors
  • Exposure to irritants due to occupation or area of residence
  • Environmental factors such as pollen, mites, soot and dust
  • Lack of exercise
  • Sudden dietary changes

Triggers and Symptoms

If a person is already suffering from asthma, there are many causative agents that can trigger an asthma attack:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Common colds and flu
  • Strenuous physical activity that can cause breathlessness
  • Inhaling of allergens such as molds, dust, pollen, saliva and animal dander
  • Strong odors
  • Chemicals
  • Food preservatives, colorings and artificial flavors
  • Changes in weather and/or temperature
  • Drugs such as aspirin

Many triggers are unknown to people who have asthma, therefore it is best to avoid these general triggers to stay on the safe side. Of course, many triggers cannot be prevented such as viruses and flues, and exercise is mandatory. There are steps many people can take while exercising to prevent an asthma attack. Contact your health provider to ask for some help. Staying fit and healthy will help you cope with asthma, so do not try to eliminate exercise from your daily routine.

 The symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • Wheezing
  • Finding it difficult to speak or whisper
  • Anxiety and distress
  • Persistent coughing
  • Appearance of hypoxia: the lips, earlobes and nail beds turn bluish, also called cyanosis due to the starvation of oxygen


When you are suffering from an asthma attack or you see a victim of an asthma attack, your main aim should be to ease the breathing or call for immediate help.

  • Make the victim calm down and allow him to relax.
  • People with asthma often keep a blue inhaler with them; therefore, you must encourage the victim to use it to relieve himself.
  • Tell the person to breathe deeply and slowly in a relaxed manner.
  • Allow the victim to sit down in whatever position he feels comfortable with. It usually helps to let the person sit on a chair with its back facing the person’s front, so that the casualty can relax his arms on the back. Do NOT make the person lie down during an asthma attack.
  • A mild asthma attack eases off within a few minutes, but if the problem persists, do not panic and encourage the casualty to use the inhaler again, once within 5 minutes.
  • Call for immediate medical help during a severe asthma attack. You will know the person is going through a severe attack when:
  1. The inhaler is ineffective
  2. The condition becomes worse
  3. Talking becomes difficult due to shortness of breath
  4. The person becomes fatigued.

 Related Video on Severe Asthma Attacks

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