Are You Prepared for an Asthma Emergency?
So you think you know
all there is to know about asthma? Try these "Fact or Fiction" questions:
1) Fact or Fiction: Asthma is not a life-threatening disease.
Answer: Fiction! In 2003, almost 4,100 people died as a result of an asthma attack.
2) Fact or Fiction: Very few people suffer from asthma.
Answer: Fiction! Approximately 20 million Americans suffer from Asthma. According to the World Health
Organization, asthma affected 300 million people worldwide in 2005, killing 255,000, and experts expect asthma
deaths to increase by 20 percent over the next decade.
3) Fact or Fiction: If not properly managed, Asthma could take control of your life, or even take your life.
Answer: Fact! Asthma is a severe life-threatening disease that will control your life if not properly managed.
Asthma, a chronic inflammatory condition, restricts the airways, preventing the lungs from getting enough oxygen to vital organs of the body. Most asthma
sufferers have "episodes" or "attacks" which cause airway constriction, muscle tightening, and an increased secretion of mucus in the airways. These attacks
lead to asthma emergencies, and if left untreated, they may lead to death.
To gain a better understanding of asthma emergencies, Certified Georgia Paramedic Erik Hogan offers his expert knowledge: "An acute asthma attack is
something I deal with a lot. I've had several patients who had extreme asthmatic attacks, where they can't speak at all. And you can see that it is taking
everything they have just to breathe. That really gets to you because you really want to help them."
Avoiding an asthma attack might be difficult, but it's not impossible. If you suffer from asthma, watch for triggers that may set off asthmatic
reactions. Some triggers include cold air, pain relievers, perfumes, paints, strong odors, tobacco smoke, common colds, influenza, respiratory illnesses,
pollution, smog, ozone , and allergens like
dust mites, pollen,
mold, and pet dander.
Make sure to limit your exposure to smoke of any kind, pets, strong fumes and odors, and allergens. The American Lung Association recommends putting
mattresses and pillows in allergen-impermeable covers to guard against exposure to allergens
and to select an air purifier with a HEPA filter. Also, take your inhalers and medications with
you wherever you go to guard against unexpected exposure to triggers.
"Generally, taking prescribed medications will prevent asthma attacks. A lot of people take steroids or Albuterol whenever they experience symptoms. Being
compliant with those medications and bringing them with you wherever you go can prevent an attack," says Hogan.
Most deaths attributed to asthma occur because patients wait too long to seek treatment or to administer their own treatment. Some of the symptoms of an
acute asthma attack include a wheezing or whistling sound when you breathe, shortness of breath, tightening of the chest, and tightening of neck
muscles. Lips and fingernails may become grayish or bluish in color.
"People who have dealt with asthma for a long time know when they need more help. If someone is having mild symptoms, they may take their inhaler two or
three times a day and if it doesn't work, they make an appointment to see a doctor. If you know your asthma is getting worse, call 911 immediately," advises
Once you feel that your body is responding to an asthmatic trigger, don't wait to respond. React immediately with medication or call an ambulance. Never
take cough medicine to relieve an asthma attack. Take only prescribed medications or inhalers to relieve your asthma attack. If you feel that the
medication is not providing relief and the symptoms are increasing, call 911. Asthma attacks need to be treated quickly to prevent respiratory distress.
Hogan explains that some patients "won't be able to speak. Worst case: They become so exhausted from trying to breathe, they become unconscious or
go into respiratory arrest, or stop breathing entirely."
These symptoms usually arise because of changes that occur in your lungs. First the cells in your bronchioles (airways) make more mucus than normal. The
mucus is thick and sticky, which tends to clog the tubes, preventing air from reaching the lungs. Next, the bronchioles begin to swell as the muscles in
your airways begin to tighten. Finally, these changes cause the airways to narrow, initiating your asthma emergency.
"Someone who is experiencing an emergency asthma attack will be sitting up in the 'tripod' position, where they are leaned forward," says Hogan. "They'll
have obvious breathing distress that is evidenced by excessive muscle use around the ribs, sucking the air into their lungs. If it's an extreme case, I'll
have to intubate them, or they'll go into cardiac arrest."
If you ever experience an asthma emergency, try to stay calm and control your breathing while waiting on the ambulance. If you become anxious, it could
adversely effect your reaction and lead to a more severe attack. If you have a loved one experiencing an asthmatic attack, Hogan advises, "Talk to the
patient in a calm voice. Calm them down. They may feel combative and want to thrash around because their body is telling them to fight for the oxygen they
"Generally," continues Hogan, "if I can talk to a patient and get the medication to them as fast as I can, assure them that they will be at the hospital
very quickly, and that I'm working for them, a lot of patients will respond well to that."
Don't let your asthma take control of your life. Get the facts and prepare yourself with medication, inhalers,
and asthma information. Trust your doctor and healthcare professionals to help
you acquire the knowledge and asthma treatment products you need to manage your asthma.
Hogan concludes, "The patients that I'm really able to help, like asthmatic and anaphylactic patients, are the most rewarding part of my job—because I see
them when they are in distress, and then I see them after they experience immediate improvement. Just being able to see the effects of the treatment
that I'm giving is the most rewarding part of my job!"