Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack

An asthma flare-up (attack) happen when signs of asthma get worse. There are early signs and emergency signs of an asthma attack. It is important to start quick relief medicine (rescue medicine) as soon as early signs begin. These early signs are:

  • Cough
  • Wheeze
  • Tight or heavy chest
  • Cough at night
  • Playing less

Follow your asthma management plan for which medicines to use. If medicine is not started the asthma attack could get more severe.

If emergency signs start, call your doctor or go to the urgent care or emergency room right away. These emergency signs are:

  • Rescue medicine is not working
  • Breathing is faster or harder and keeps getting worse
  • Nose opens wider (flares)
  • The skin between the ribs pulls in; this is called retractions
  • Trouble walking, talking or sleeping
  • Coughing without stopping

What happens during an asthma attack?

During an asthma flare-up or attack, three things get worse in the airways inside the lungs:

  • The airways become swollen. The walls thicken and make the airways smaller.
  • The airways make more mucous. Mucous is a thick liquid that your body makes. Mucous normally protects the nose, throat, and airways. When you have asthma, your body makes too much mucous. This mucous can plug the airways.
  • Muscles around the airways squeeze tight. Your airways have muscles around them that are usually loose. When you have asthma, these muscles can tighten.

These three things all make the airways the airways smaller, which are what causes wheezing, more coughing, and trouble breathing.

The body is working hard to get air in and out. There are signs when the body is working to get air in and out:

  • The nose opens wider (flares) to get more air in
  • The skin between the ribs pulls in, so you see the ribs more than usual; this is called retractions

There are early signs and emergency signs of an asthma attack. It is important to start quick relief medicine (rescue) medicine as soon as early signs begin. Follow your asthma management plan. If medicine is not started the asthma attack could get more severe.

Why do asthma attacks happen?

Often something triggers an asthma attack such as:

  • Colds
  • Allergies
  • Something around you (cleaners, animals, dust, mold, or weather changes)
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Exercise

Learn more about asthma triggers

Treatment of an asthma attack

Your doctor will help you get good control of your asthma. With good control, asthma attacks do not happen often.