What is a Severe Asthma Attack?

by John Bottrell Health Professional

A severe asthma attack (not to be confused with severe asthma) is an asthma attack that is really bad. The medical term for this is status asthmaticus, or an asthma attack that is unresponsive to attempts to correct it.

Such an attack is caused when the muscles surrounding your air passages spasm and squeeze your airways so air can get in but not out.
Increased sputum production may cause mucus plugs that also block air passages.

A severe attack may include any of the following:

  • Uncomfortable coughing

  • Chest tightness

  • Wheezing (or no wheezing)

  • Chest pain

  • Unable to speak in full sentences

  • Leaning on things to breathe

  • Need to sit or stand to breathe

  • The need to keep shoulders raised to breathe

  • Sucking in stomach when inhaling

  • Bluish tinge around lips and fingertips

  • Feeling panicked

  • Confusion

  • Unable to concentrate

  • Inability to decide what action to take

  • Anxiety, may be severe anxiety

  • Retractions, nasal flaring, grunting (common in children)

  • Peak flow readings less than 60 percent

You may not experience all or only some of these symptoms, as they tend to vary from person to person. Still, when you experience these they are signs that you must take immediate action.

You should work with your asthma physician to create a plan to help you determine what action to take.
Usually this will involve the following:

Still, the best way to prevent severe asthma attacks is to prevent all asthma attacks.
The best way to do this is to obtain good asthma control, which can be obtained by following these ten simple steps.

John Bottrell
Meet Our Writer
John Bottrell

John Bottrell is a registered Respiratory Therapist. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).