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Have you ever experienced an involuntary sensation of breathlessness? Your chest tightens as your lungs struggle to find air, and you search your pockets for relief in the form of an inhaler. For many people, this occurrence is the result of a common lung disease called asthma.
Your body’s bronchial tubes are responsible for moving air through your lungs. They’re surrounded by muscles, which, in non-asthma patients, remain still for natural, easy breathing. Once asthma strikes, the bronchial tubes are strained as those nearby muscles tighten. The sensation of breathlessness is no longer just a sensation, but a literal symptom.
If you have asthma, you may know this and related symptoms including chest rattling, coughing and wheezing all too well. Have you ever wondered if your asthma is having long-term effects on your health? What happens to your lungs each time you have an attack? What about the rest of your body? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone.
An asthma attack is an exacerbation of asthma symptoms, during which a patient’s inflamed bronchial tubes prevent them from moving air in and out of their lungs. This episode may also be referred to as an asthma flareup. Regardless of what you call it, the symptoms are the same. Asthma attacks sometimes go on for several minutes at a time. If you have a more serious case of asthma or you’ve been consistently exposed to an asthma trigger, then the attack can continue for hours. At worst, some attacks can endure for days.
See related: How to Help a Person Having an Asthma Attack
You may have had asthma since childhood. Symptoms typically manifest in children five or younger. Sometimes laughing or crying can lead to an asthma attack in children, while other times it’s playing, excessive running, cold air and other weather shifts, scents such as perfume or smoke, and allergens such as pollen, dust mites or pet dander. Even being sick with a cold can cause asthma attacks.
In other instances, your job could trigger your feelings of breathlessness. This is known as occupational asthma, in which asthma attacks occur from breathing in dust, gases, fumes or other irritants. Allergic asthma can be exacerbated by said allergen, be that pollen or pet dander.
Lastly, there’s exercise-induced asthma, which is also known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. This is when exercise leads to asthma attacks. In some cases, the exercise-induced asthma patient can be symptomatic outside of performing physical activity, but most people exclusively experience their flare-ups during exercise.
You already know that the muscles in your lungs tighten during an asthma episode. The bronchial tubes may become swollen or otherwise irritated. What else does asthma do to the body? That’s a great question.
According to American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, asthma causes a semi-permanent inflammation in the lungs’ airways. That means your airways are swollen and red. They’re characterized as being in a hypersensitive state that can be irritated by any small trigger. Some of these triggers, outlined in Asthma Attacks: Triggers and Treatments, include pet dander, smoke, chemicals, dust, cold or warm weather, pollen, stress, and illness.
Unfortunately, it’s very normal for someone to be scared or fatigued after suffering an asthma attack. Even seconds of this frightening breathlessness can feel like hours, and your body needs time to recover from the shock of what happened.
That’s why you will have to take care of yourself in the days following an asthma attack. Your lungs are in a weakened state, which makes you more susceptible to a second or third attack. This risk is high over several days, so keep your asthma care a high priority.
Finally, in worst-case scenarios, you may experience what’s known as airway remodeling. This only occurs in long-term asthma patients who have not taken care of themselves and their condition. With asthma remodeling, the airways naturally cannot receive as much air. That makes asthma attacks more likely. Worse yet is that airway remodeling is impervious to most treatments, including asthma medications. This is due to scarring on the lungs.
Whether your asthma symptoms are activated due to pollen or exercise, it’s important to understand what triggers your asthma and to work with an immunologist or doctor to discuss your treatment options.
If you get asthma attacks frequently, you may be recommended an inhaler. Not all inhalers are the same. There are three main inhaler delivery options: dry powder inhalers, a nebulizer and a metered dose inhaler. For dry powder inhalers, you must breathe in quickly since there are no chemical propellants to push the medication forward. A nebulizer covers your mouth and nose with an oxygenated mask or uses a mouthpiece in a mist that you inhale. Lastly, a metered dose inhaler, which is the most common type of inhaler, delivers medication with a propellant. If you’re especially susceptible to sudden asthma attacks, it’s a good idea to always keep an inhaler on your person. This way, you can get instant relief as needed.
Your medical provider may recommend additional medications such as inhaled steroids which work to decrease airway inflammation or anticholinergic inhalers which help with mucus production and bronchodilation. There are also long acting bronchodilator inhalers called beta 2 agonists. Combination inhalers of these different medications are also available.
You and your medical provider should also draw up an asthma plan. This identifies your triggers, your need for medication, and your asthma attacks, including how often you get them. Asthma plans must remain fluid to accommodate for changing needs. If your current plan isn’t working, you should discuss that with your doctor as well.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with asthma, you’ll want to care for your symptoms and avoid flareups as much as possible. At Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center, we can help you manage your symptoms. We are allergy and asthma specialists who work with patients across Rock Hill, Gastonia, Monroe, Lake Norman, Ballantyne, South Park, Mooresville and other parts of Charlotte, North Carolina.
In addition to asthma, we can also diagnose and help manage allergies to venom, insects, drugs, food, and more. While asthma is a chronic condition, we can help you build a personalized care plan to help you overcome the challenges related to your asthma.
Please note: Due to healthcare privacy laws, we cannot answer any questions pertaining to personal health information by e-mail.