Exacerbation of Asthma: What Are the Symptoms?

Exacerbation of Asthma: What Are the Symptoms?

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If you have been recently diagnosed with asthma, it’s important to understand the concept of asthma exacerbations and their symptoms. Read on for more information.

Asthma exacerbations relate to an acute or subacute period which sees your asthma symptoms progressively worsen within a short space of time. 

Exacerbations of asthma are somewhat different to someone that’s poorly controlling their asthma symptoms. That’s because variability in airflow – which is a key indicator of poor asthma control – does not occur during a period of exacerbation.

Asthma exacerbations can occur for various reasons, which we’ll go into in greater detail later in this article. It can be due to untreated asthma, poor environmental conditions or even the age and genetics of an asthma sufferer.

What occurs during an acute exacerbation of asthma?

As most asthma sufferers will already know, this chronic lung disease causes the inflammation and narrowing of the airways, potentially restricting the airflow into and out of the body.

When someone experiences an acute exacerbation of their asthma condition, their airways swell up more than usual, making breathing harder and more stressful. The muscles in your lungs and throat contract and there is a narrowing of the bronchial tubes, creating this sense of fear and anxiety.

According to Verywellhealth.com, asthma exacerbations are also prone to creating more mucus within the lungs. As your airways becoming increasingly inflamed and irritated during an attack, cells within the airways produce more mucus, which can potentially clog up the airways further.

If these symptoms persist, resulting in regular acute exacerbation of asthma symptoms, there is a very real danger that this can lead to airway remodeling, with continued scarring of lung tissue ending in irreversible lung damage.

Commons symptoms of asthma exacerbation

According to the UK’s NHS, acute asthma exacerbations kill three people in the UK every day. Furthermore, every ten seconds, someone in the UK has an asthma exacerbation that could be potentially life-threatening. It’s therefore vital to understand the most likely symptoms you will experience amid an acute exacerbation of your asthma:

  • Wheezing

Wheezing creates a high-pitched sound whenever you breathe in and out. In the most extreme cases of wheezing it will be heard more clearly when you inhale. Wheezing is a symptom of inflammation or the narrowing of your airways.

  • Coughing

A cough is a reflex action designed to clear the throat of mucus and any other irritants. Asthma exacerbations can cause a build-up of mucus in the lungs and throat, resulting in an acute cough that can last for several days.

  • Tight chest

The production of extra mucus during an exacerbation of asthma symptoms can also cause tightness in your chest, making it hard to breathe.

  • Shortness of breath

Some asthma sufferers will complain of the inability to draw a full breath. Inflammation of the airways, stress and anxiety caused by an asthma attack can also cause shortness of breath.

  • Agitation and anxiety

Asthma sufferers that experience an acute exacerbation are likely to feel a sense of restlessness or agitation regarding their condition.

  • Hyperventilation

If you panic during an asthma attack, you’ll often exhale more than you inhale, resulting in a large drop in CO2 levels within your body. This can leave you feeling lightheaded and nauseous.

  • Rising heart rate

A ‘bounding pulse is one which feels like your heart is racing or pounding quicker than normal.

  • Problems with breathing and talking

Many people with asthma exacerbations struggle to talk as well as breathe, as they are more worried about taking air.

What are the most likely triggers of acute asthma exacerbation?

Acute asthma exacerbations don’t tend to occur without a trigger. Sometimes, it can be a combination of symptoms or factors that set off a chain reaction within your body. Given that there are so many possible triggers for asthma attacks, it can be difficult for sufferers and asthma nurses alike to truly identify the specific causes. Nevertheless, exacerbations are most commonly caused by the following symptoms:

  • Colds

Heavy colds can often result in health complications such as bronchitis or weakened immune systems. Colds are one of the most common causes of asthma exacerbations in young children.

  • Pollen or dust allergens

Pollen allergies can result in a frustrating and irritating cough, scratchy throat and heightened asthmatic reactions. It’s the same with dust mite allergies which can make it hard to breathe and bring about an onset of an asthma attack.

  • Pets

Almost a third of people in America are allergic to pets such as cats and dogs. Allergens to cats and dogs are similar to those caused be dust mites.

  • Tobacco smoke

Second-hand tobacco smoke is one of the most common causes of asthma exacerbation and other serious health conditions. In young children, inhaling tobacco smoke can seriously decelerate lung development and lead to an onset of asthma.

  • Cold and dry air

Cold-induced asthma conditions can occur during the changing of the weather seasons. As temperatures plummet outside, breathing can become harder, exacerbating asthma symptoms.

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Those with asthma are reportedly twice as likely to develop gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The continued flow of stomach acid into the esophagus harms your throat lining and airways, making your lungs more sensitive to irritants that can trigger asthma attacks.

Who is most at risk of asthma exacerbation?

Although all asthma sufferers are at risk of exacerbation at some point in their lives, the major risk factors include:

  • Those who’ve had an exacerbation before

Asthma sufferers that have experienced a prolonged attack in the past will often be more susceptible to another acute exacerbation in the years ahead.

  • Those who use multiple rescue inhalers

Asthma sufferers with conditions severe enough to require multiple rescue inhalers will almost certainly encounter more acute exacerbations than those without.

  • Regular smokers

The effects of regular smoking on the body include a ‘smoker’s cough’ which accelerates the effects of lung conditions such as asthma.

  • Poor asthma medication adherence

Those who struggle to keep up with their asthma medication will be at greater risk of experiencing asthma exacerbations. That’s one of the main reasons why Safey has developed smart inhaler technology to gamify improving inhaler technique for patients and help clinicians and asthma nurses to be better informed on patient adherence.

How to diagnose asthma exacerbations

There are four clear methods to diagnose whether an individual has suffered an asthma exacerbation:

Take a peak flow test

A peak flow test will help clinicians and GPs to see how fast you can exhale. By blowing into the mouthpiece of the peak flow machine you can get an accurate measure of whether your lung capacity has recently deteriorated.

Use a spirometer

A spirometer is another hugely beneficial machine designed to help GPs and asthma nurses accurately measure how fast a patient can breathe in and out, whilst determining how much air their lungs can hold.

Take a nitric oxide test

Patients breathe into another mouthpiece designed to calculate the levels of nitric oxide in your breath. High levels of nitric oxide suggest inflammation in the bronchial tubes.

Check the oxygen levels of your blood

A pulse oximeter can quickly measure the levels of oxygen in your blood. Placed on the tip of your finger, it can take just seconds to calculate and can be done so at home.