Lots of things can cause an asthma attack. Something that causes an asthma attack is called a trigger.
Some common triggers are:
- infections like colds or bronchitis
- changes in the weather (from mild to cold)
Whenever there is an asthma attack, there are changes in normal breathing. Below you can learn about normal breathing and the changes in breathing that happen with asthma.
What is Normal Breathing?
When most of us breathe, the muscles that are wrapped around the air tubes (airways) are very loose and relaxed, and the lining inside the airways is very thin. This lets the airways open up very wide so that it is easy to get air in and out of the small air sacs that make up our lungs. These small sacs are called alveoli (pronounced al-vee-oh-lye). When air moves in and out of our lungs, we call it breathing.
The picture below shows what your lungs look like when everything is working normally. The muscles wrapped around the airways are very thin and loose, and the airway is wide open. This makes it easy to move air in and out of the air sacs.
The animation below shows normal breathing. As we breathe in, air that contains lots of oxygen (shown in red) is pulled into the lungs. This oxygen slowly moves from the lungs into the blood. Then air that contains carbon dioxide (shown in blue) is pushed back out through the lungs as we breathe out. When things are working normally, the amount of air we breathe in is about the same as the amount of air we breathe out.
When you are breathing normally, it takes about the same amount of time to breathe in (inspire or inhale) as it does to breathe out (expire or exhale).
This is what a doctor or nurse hears when listening to normal breathing with a stethoscope.
What Happens in an Asthma Attack?
During an asthma attack, the muscles around the airways tighten, or "spasm" (like when you make a fist), and the lining inside the airways swells or thickens, and gets clogged with lots of thick mucous. This makes the airways much skinnier than usual so it is harder to move air in and out of the air sacs. This makes it hard to breathe! The picture below shows what your lungs would look like during an asthma attack.
During an asthma attack, it is harder and takes much longer to breathe out (expire or exhale) than to breathe in (inspire or inhale). Since it is so hard to breathe out during an asthma attack, more and more air gets trapped inside the lungs - making it feel like you can't breathe in or out!
The animation below shows breathing during an asthma attack. Notice that the airways are narrowed (skinny), so less air can move in and out of the lungs. When things are working normally, the amount of air we breathe in is about the same as the amount of air we breathe out. But during an asthma attack, air gets trapped inside the lungs making it harder and harder to breathe.
Notice how different this is from normal breathing.
What Does an Asthma Attack Feel Like?
Not everybody feels the same things when they have an asthma attack. Sometimes people having an asthma attack will have these symptoms:
- cough and cough and cough
- feel like they can't catch their breath
- feel like air is trapped in their lungs and they can't get it out
- pain in their chest
- very noisy breathing