Are You Prepared for an Asthma Emergency?

Certified Georgia Paramedic Erik Hogan offers his expert knowledge on asthma emergencies: "An acute asthma attack is something I deal with a lot. Iíve had several patients who had extreme asthmatic attacks, where they canít 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."

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that restricts the airways and prevents 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 may lead to asthma emergencies, and if left untreated, they may lead to death.

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 doesnít work, they make an appointment to see a doctor. If you know your asthma is getting worse, call 911 immediately," advises Hogan.

Once you feel that your body is responding to an asthmatic trigger, donít wait to respond. React immediately with medication or call an ambulance. 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 "wonít 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."

"Someone who is experiencing an emergency asthma attack will be sitting up in the 'tripod' position, where they are leaned forward," says Hogan. "Theyíll have obvious breathing distress that is evidenced by excessive muscle use around the ribs, sucking the air into their lungs. If itís an extreme case, Iíll have to intubate them, or theyíll 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 need."

"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."

Hogan concludes, "The patients that Iím really able to help, like asthmatic and anaphylactic patients, are the most rewarding part of my jobóbecause 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!"

Donít let your asthma take control of your life. Get the facts and prepare yourself with medication, inhalers, and information.

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