Asthma attacks and their treatments

By: Osler Health International
Posted on: 19 Jul 2023

3rd May World Asthma Day: asthma attacks and treatments

Pollen, dust, pet fur… these are just some of the well-known asthma triggers. However, it may be a surprise that a few seemingly unrelated factors, like uncontrollable laughing or a thunderstorm, can also provoke an asthma attack or aggravate its symptoms.

As we commemorate World Asthma Day this year, we unpack the mechanics of an asthma attack, the types of asthma triggers and possible treatments .

What is an asthma attack?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), asthma is a major non-communicable disease (NCD) that can affect both children and adults. During an asthma attack, a sudden deterioration of asthma symptoms is observed due to the constriction of muscles surrounding the airways. The signs of an attack include:

  • Wheezing: a whistling sound when breathing out
  • Shortness of breath: difficulty taking full breaths
  • Chest tightness: a feeling of pressure or constriction in the chest
  • Coughing: asthma may cause individuals to cough, especially at night or early in the morning, and they experience difficulty in stopping the cough
  • Blue lips or fingers

While some children may experience an asthma attack upon exposure to a trigger, others may experience the attack hours later and persist for days. Above all, how an asthma attack is induced can vary between individuals, and understanding this variance is a first step in the right direction to help relieve asthma symptoms for an enhanced quality of life. 

What triggers an asthma attack?

To help you better manage your child’s risk factors for asthma attacks, the following are some categories of asthma triggers to be mindful of:

1. Allergens

Allergens are substances that can trigger an allergic reaction. Inhalation or consumption of allergens can irritate the airways, leading to temporary inflammation in susceptible individuals. This can cause asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Common examples of allergens include:

  • Pollen
  • Dust mites
  • Mould spores
  • Pet dander, such as saliva or dried skin flakes
  • Specific food and food preservatives
  • Medication

2. Irritants

Irritants are substances that contaminate the air and cause a reaction (asthma attack) in individuals that inhale the contaminated air. The most common irritants include:

  • Strong odours or chemicals: these can be found in cleaning products, paint, gasoline, even scented candles, perfumes, and air fresheners
  • Air pollution: this can range from industrial emissions to vehicle exhaust and smog
  • Smoke: sources of smoke include cigarettes, burning materials like incense, or charcoal grills

In the event of an asthma attack, and an inhaler is not readily available, always remain calm, get away from the trigger quickly and take slow, deep breaths while sitting upright to open your airways. 

While it can be challenging, it is advisable to take note of the specific fragrances or odours that may act as triggers for asthma symptoms, so you can actively minimise exposure to them to prevent future attacks.

3. Physical activity

Engaging in exercise and physical activities typically causes increased breathing, which can impact asthma. Exercise-induced asthma is a specific type of asthma elicited by strenuous activities. The onset of symptoms such as coughs, wheezing, and shortness of breath may not occur until several minutes into a sustained workout. 

However, with proper management and preventive measures, children with exercise-induced asthma can still participate and benefit from physical activities. This may involve using medication prescribed by a doctor or taking steps to warm up and cool down properly before and after exercise.

4. Weather conditions

Environmental factors, such as dry wind or sudden weather changes, can also be potential causes of an asthma attack. Breathing in cold air, for example, can cause the airways to narrow and trigger coughs, wheezing, and shortness of breath

While uncommon, thunderstorms can also pose a risk to individuals with asthma when they coincide with high pollen levels and humidity. This is because the rain can break down pollen grains into smaller particles easily dispersed by the accompanying wind, making them more easily inhaled by vulnerable individuals. 

5. Emotional factors

Intense emotional states, whether it be uncontrollable laughter or intense crying, can potentially induce an asthma attack by altering breathing patterns and restricting airflow. Managing emotions through relaxation techniques or stress reduction strategies can help individuals with asthma better control their symptoms.

Living with asthma and various treatments

Asthma can affect daily activities. By understanding the triggers, individuals are better equipped to minimise their exposure to risk factors and reduce the likelihood of an attack.

Nonetheless, coping with asthma alone can be trying and seeking timely guidance and effective treatment can better help individuals to tackle the challenges of asthma and its related symptoms. Fortunately, support systems are available. If you require assistance managing your or your children’s asthma, Osler Health International is here to support you every step of the way.

Our international children’s doctors can support your needs as a parent of a child with asthma. We know that sometimes it can be scary and you need to have confidence that you have a team of medical professionals who you can trust. The Osler Health doctors have a reputation for trusted care. Book an appointment with our clinic today.

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