How To Perform First Aid for Asthma Attacks

Student helping her asmathic friend
Asthma is a common chronic condition that attacks the lungs. All over the world, people suffer from this condition, although this is more common in children than in adults. For most, asthma has been commonly dismissed as a minor health concern. However, health organisations consider this as a serious health condition, affecting 25 million Americans. In Singapore, studies revealed that 20 percent of children and 5 percent of adults suffer from asthma. While not contagious, asthma can be hereditary. Furthermore, this can be a real cause for concern when left untreated and may cause severe damage to the lungs. Below is a breakdown of this condition and what you can do when a person starts having asthma attacks at home or in the workplace.

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic disease that upsets the airways to the lungs. This disease inflames the airways, narrowing them down and causing breathing difficulties. Depending on how severe the asthma condition is, a person may find it hard to breathe even in simple situations, like talking. A person who has asthma can experience breathlessness, wheezing, coughing, chest tightness in the morning. Asthma is a long-term disease, but from time to time, a person who has asthma may experience asthma attacks which can turn into a medical emergency.

What causes Asthma?

Despite being a common disease that affects a lot of people worldwide, there has been no known single cause for asthma. Studies only conclude that asthma can be brought about by a range of factors which include:
  • Genetics Asthma is hereditary. Your chances of having the condition are high if one of your parents or siblings has asthma.
  • History of viral infections Individuals who have a known history of acute viral infections such as a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in their childhood are more likely to develop asthma.
  • The proposition of less bacterial exposure Asthma is more often acquired by children because their immune systems are not yet fully developed. The Hygiene Hypothesis states that the babies’ resistance to bacterial infections and other allergic conditions is relative to their bacterial exposure. Babies who are not exposed to as much bacteria are often thought to have weaker immune systems that make them vulnerable to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

What triggers Asthma Attacks?

People who have asthma result usually have a more vulnerable respiratory system, making them more sensitive to certain smells and unsanitary environments. These odors and conditions are called “asthma triggers.” Asthma triggers can be different for every person. Knowing your triggers can help in exercising an effective asthma prevention practice for yourself. The most common asthma triggers are:
  • Tobacco and cigarette smoke It is no secret that the smoke produced by tobacco and cigarettes is unhealthy, but this can be extra dangerous for people who have asthma as this can trigger an asthma attack.
  • Dust mites and other allergens Dust mites are tiny bugs that live in many corners of the home, even your bed, and mattresses. These bugs can cause allergic reactions and even bring about an asthma attack.
  • Strong odors and other nasal irritants The smell of perfumes, strong fragrances, air fresheners, household cleaning products, and other chemicals are also known to trigger asthma. Pollen from flowers, grasses, trees, and weeds can also cause allergic sensitivities that can lead to an asthma attack.
  • Outdoor air pollution Pollution present in open spaces can arise from many sources. These sources include car and factory smoke, and in some cases, wildfire smoke. Burning wood and other plants produce smoke that may contain harmful gases and other tiny particles. When inhaled, these gases and particles can cause asthma attacks when inhaled.
  • Household pests Pests like cockroaches, mice, and rats may generate allergens that can induce asthma attacks.
  • Pets The fur and hair from your pets, like cats and dogs, can cause asthma attacks and allergic reactions.
  • Molds Mold growth can take place in damp areas like bathrooms, kitchens, and basements. Even if you are not allergic to mold, breathing in mold can trigger an asthma attack.
  • Illnesses and infections Colds, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can also cause asthma attacks. Infections that affect the sinuses, allergies, pollen, and dust inhalation can also yield the same effect.
  • Exercise and other intense activities Physical exercise can often trigger a certain type of asthma known as exercise-induced asthma.
  • Extreme weather conditions Changes in the weather, as well as humidity and temperature, can induce asthma attacks.
  • Intense emotions Experiencing extreme bouts of emotions such as laughing or crying can lead to hyperventilation, which can induce asthma attacks. Too much stress can also make someone hyperventilate and suffer an asthma attack.
  • Other triggers Food preservatives and sulfites that are added to some processed foods and beverages, like dried fruits and beer, can also cause a person to have an asthma attack. Conditions like acid reflux, heartburn, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also prompt asthma attacks. Medications like aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) are also known to start incidents of asthma attacks.

Types of Asthma

Asthma is characterised by different types. Often, asthma is classified depending on the triggers.

Exercise-induced Asthma

Also known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), this type of asthma is often experienced within a few minutes of doing an exercise. It can also occur 10 to 15 minutes after engaging in physical activity. This type of asthma can also be worse when the air is cold or dry. Approximately 90 percent of asthmatic people also experience EIB.

Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma is often brought about by triggers in an industrial workplace, like textile, woodworking, manufacturing, and farming industries. Triggers may come in the form of:
  • Dust
  • Dyes
  • Fumes and other gases
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Animal proteins
  • Rubber latex

Allergy-induced Asthma (AIA)

Also known as extrinsic asthma, allergy-induced asthma is caused by allergens that may usually come in the form of:
  • Animal dander from pets like cats and dogs
  • Dust
  • Mold
  • Pollen
  • Food
This type of asthma is seasonal, as it tends to appear with seasonal allergies as well.

Nonallergic Asthma

Also known as intrinsic asthma, this type of asthma is caused by irritants that are present in the air like cigarette smoke, air pollution, cleaning products, perfumes, and burning wood.

Nocturnal Asthma

This type of asthma typically has symptoms that seem to worsen at night, hindering the individual from having proper sleep. Nocturnal asthma can be triggered by dust mites, heartburns, and pet danders.

Aspirin-induced Asthma

Also referred to as aspirin-exacerbated respiratory disease (AERD), this type of asthma is often caused by the intake of aspirin and other NSAIDs, like ibuprofen. Aspirin-induced asthma is often more severe than other types of asthma. This type of asthma often develops in adults from ages 20 to 50.

Cough-variant Asthma (CVA)

This type of asthma is identified via persistent, dry cough. It does not manifest the usual asthma symptoms like breathlessness and wheezing. However, when a CVA is left untreated, it can result in a full-blown asthma case.

Symptoms of Asthma

The usual symptoms of asthma are wheezing and shortness of breath. Other symptoms to watch out for include:
  • Coughing, especially at night, when laughing or crying, as well as during a physical activity
  • Tightness across the chest
  • Difficulty in talking
  • Fatigue
  • Constant anxiousness or panic

Risk Factors of Asthma

Several factors may increase your risks of having asthma. These include:
  • Having a blood relative like a parent or a sibling that has asthma
  • Having a history of allergic conditions like atopic dermatitis
  • Being a smoker
  • Being overweight
  • Prolonged and frequent exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Prolonged and frequent exposure to gases, fumes, and other types of air pollution
  • Prolonged and frequent exposure to occupational asthma triggers like chemicals and dust

Complications of Asthma

Certain complications and other disorders may arise from asthma. These include:
  • Signs that interfere, alter or hinder important activities like sleep and work
  • Sick days off from work or school brought about by asthma episodes
  • The narrowing of the tubes that transport air to and from the lungs, permanently affecting the person’s breathing capability
  • Increased visit to the emergency room and frequent hospitalization for severe asthma flare-ups
  • Side effects that may stem from long-term asthma stabiliser use

Treatment for Asthma

Asthma treatment is not one single treatment or medication. Usually, asthma treatments are grouped into the following:
  • Breathing exercises
  • Quick-relief treatments
  • Long-term asthma-stabilising medications
The treatments vary per person and usually depend on several factors. These factors include the type of asthma, age, and triggers. Based on these factors, the doctor may prescribe a combination of any of these treatments.

Breathing Exercises

These exercises are meant to increase your lung capacity by getting more oxygen into and out of the lungs. Through continuous breathing exercises, severe asthma symptoms are generally minimised.

Quick-Relief Asthma Treatments

These medications offer fast-acting temporary relief during an asthma attack, allowing the person to breathe again. These treatments come in the form of bronchodilators which eases the muscle bands that have tightened around the airways. Bronchodilators can be taken as a rescue inhaler or a nebuliser.

Long-term Medications for Asthma Management

These medications are prescribed to manage and reduce the instances and symptoms of asthma. These, however, do not provide immediate relief in the event of an asthma attack. Long-term medications for asthma stabilisation include anti-inflammatories, anticholinergics, and biologic therapy drugs that come in injectables.

First Aid Treatment for Asthma Attacks

When a person is having an asthma attack, here is what you can do to make sure that the situation calms down.
  1. Have the person sit upright. Sitting upright allows the person to breathe better as compared to when they’re lying down.
  2. Help them to their quick-relief medications. Provide them assistance when it comes to using their rescue inhaler or nebuliser. It should take 2 to 6 puffs of the medication for the symptoms to calm down.
  3. Seek medical attention if the symptoms persist. If the symptoms still endure after 20 minutes and the second round of medication did not work, it is time to call for emergency help.

Prevention for Asthma

Preventing anyone from developing asthma is particularly difficult since there is no known single cause as to why anyone starts acquiring asthma. However, there are certain practices that people can exercise to lessen the possibility of them developing the condition.
  • Stay away from triggers. As much as possible, try to avoid known asthma triggers.
  • Minimise exposure to allergens and irritants. Maintain sanitary living conditions at all times. Make sure that any problem with mold growth is dealt with before it can become a source of respiratory illnesses. Change and wash your bedsheets once a week, and if possible, opt for allergen-proof mattresses.
  • Get vaccinated. Make sure that you have the latest vaccinations against flu and pneumonia. You should also consider getting allergy shots regularly to boost your immune system.
  • Observe your breathing patterns. Learn how to identify known warning signs and symptoms of having asthma. You may also try and measure your peak airflow at home using a peak flow meter.

Frequently Asked Questions

The first-aid treatment for someone who is having an asthma attack starts with having them sit upright first. This lets them breathe better and more comfortably. Once they are sitting upright, have them take 2 to 6 puffs of their rescue inhaler or nebuliser.

If the person is still having difficulty breathing after 20 minutes and a second round of the prescribed number of puffs, you may need to call the emergency services or bring the person to the nearest hospital.

There are several easy ways to open up the airways.

You can drink warm liquids and beverages like hot herbal tea to break down the mucus that congests your airways.

You can also try inhaling steam that produces moist air, which loosens up the congestion that has formed in your airways. You may also opt for a hot shower that produces steam that you can inhale. A humidifier can also produce the same effect.

There are certain foods that you can avoid to prevent asthma attacks from happening. In general, these foods are those that contain preservatives and sulfite. These may include:

  1. Dried fruits or
  2. vegetables
  3. Processed potatoes
  4. Beer
  5. Wine
  6. Shrimp (both fresh
  7. and frozen)
  8. Pickled foods
  9. Bottled lemon juice

Foods that can help reduce asthma attacks are those that are rich in Vitamin D, beta carotene, and magnesium.

For reference, here are some foods that you should take if you have asthma.

  • Salmon
  • Fortified milk
  • Eggs
  • Carrots
  • Spinach and other leafy greens like romaine lettuce and kale
  • Broccoli
  • Apple
  • Bananas
  • Dark chocolate

There are several simple means to strengthen your lungs naturally. First, if you are smoking, you must quit the habit. You must also try to avoid secondhand smoke and other irritants.

Partaking in foods that are rich in antioxidants also aid in naturally improving your lungs.

Lastly, exercising regularly contributes largely to strengthening your lungs.

If you don’t have an inhaler with you, you can open your lungs' airways with the use of steam or a humidifier at home. You can also drink warm beverages like herbal tea to clear the congestion in your airways.

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