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Asthma Attacks: Learn These First Aid Steps

All of a sudden, you feel out of breath, your chest tightens, and it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. These are all common signs of an incoming asthma attack. Here’s how to recognise the symptoms and what to do if it happens to you or the person next to you.

Whether it happens to you or someone else, an asthma attack is a terrifying ordeal. At times it can be a life-or-death situation – so it is important to pay attention to the signs. Those who go through bad asthma attacks often describe their episode as if they were “breathing through a straw”. Some people also liken the experience to choking or drowning and having to fight for air.

How does an asthma attack happen? Dr. Tan Wee Yong, Consultant Internal Medicine Physician from Columbia Asia Hospital – Setapak, explains: “An asthma attack occurs when an allergen is present in the respiratory tract. The airways will react by secreting more discharge and swell up when triggered by the allergen. This causes the airways to become tighter and leads to difficulty in breathing.”

Apart from these signs, other symptoms include laboured breathing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, light-headedness and unable to talk in full sentences. In severe cases, hypoxia can happen. This condition causes the lips and fingernails to turn blue due to a lack of oxygen. Difficulty in conversing and hypoxia fall under the dangerous category and if such symptoms arise, seek immediate medical help.

Some asthma attack signs that warrant emergency medical treatment include being unable to speak, feeling unwell after using a rescue inhaler, and strained chest muscles due to difficulty breathing.

What to do if you are having an asthma attack
Although some attacks can be severe and require immediate medical treatment, some asthma attacks are mild — lasting a mere few minutes. These milder attacks can be handled and treated by anyone immediately. Here’s a guide:

Use your inhaler
This is an essential item for those suffering from asthma and should be carried around at all times. Albuterol inhalers are quick-acting bronchodilators, which means they open up airways to help you inhale more easily. For severe cases, doctors can prescribe epinephrine.

“If there is a rescue inhaler, an asthmatic person should administer it themselves first, then call for help or an ambulance,” Dr. Tan says. “If there are no inhalers, it’s important to stay calm and call for help immediately. Refrain from doing any strenuous activities.”

Follow your action plan
According to KKM’s MyHEALTH portal, an asthma action plan is a written plan customised for every asthmatic patient. A doctor usually develops and designs the action plan to help asthmatic patients keep their asthma under control. Action plans may differ from patient to patient depending on severity. The plans are also updated to include changes in asthma medication.

Generally, the plan consists of these instructions:

  • The name of the medicines and how to take them
  • When to take rescue medication
  • How much medication to take in different circumstances
  • When to call the doctor or go to the nearest clinic or hospital for treatment
  • Patient’s personal best of peak flow reading
  • Doctor’s name and phone number

(Source: www.myhealth.gov.my/en/asthma-action-plan)

Remain calm
As Dr. Tan has mentioned, it’s important to keep calm. You can do this by relaxing your upper body and slowing down your breathing during an asthma attack. This helps prevent a panic attack, which would exacerbate your symptoms.

Seek medical help
If the inhaler doesn’t help, or you still have any of the symptoms, go to the nearest hospital or clinic immediately. Even if you seem better after the initial attack, it’s a good idea to visit a doctor right away to prevent any further complications.

Avoid your triggers
If you know your triggers, try to stay away from them as much as possible. Common triggers include pollen, mould, dust mites, cockroaches, and pet dander. Upper respiratory infections such as a cold or flu and even sinusitis can also be causes of an asthma attack. Other potential triggers include cigarette smoke, certain perfumes and fragrances, stress, and acid reflux. Certain weather conditions such as high winds can also aggravate asthma.

“For people who have asthma, it’s important to have knowledge of the allergen that you are allergic to and try to avoid it. Use your inhaler as required. Also, get vaccinated against respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, influenza, and Covid-19,” Dr. Tan advises.

How to help someone going through an asthma attack
If you are with someone who is having an asthma attack, once again, remain calm despite how difficult that may be. Panic will only make the victim’s breathing even harder; thus, you must reassure them that everything will be fine. Help them sit upright in a comfortable position and proceed with locating their inhaler. Call for help immediately.

“If it’s someone else going through an asthma attack, avoid crowding the area. Call an ambulance. If there is an inhaler with the patient, help the patient administer the inhaler,” Dr. Tan adds.

Dr. Tan Wee Yong
Consultant Internal Medicine Physician
Columbia Asia Hospital – Setapak

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