a man holding an anvil, a woman in a tight corset, and another woman trying to drink through a broken straw

Ask the Advocates: What Does an Asthma Attack Feel Like?

Some people describe an asthma attack as the feeling of an elephant sitting on their chest. Others say it feels like a boa constrictor is wrapping itself around them. Some do not notice it before it swiftly seeps in and catches them off guard. We asked our advocate team, “How would you describe what an asthma attack feels like for you?” Here is what they said.

Like there is a weight on my chest

Response from Becky Greiner:

"For me, asthma attacks are every muscle tensing to get oxygen flow in me and help me survive. They also feel like intense tightness in my chest, like there's a weight on it and I just can't get a good breath. The wheezing is intense and very audible. During my worst asthma attack my oxygen intake dropped to 83, and I was not able to walk or talk because my airways were so restricted."

My chin itches!

Response from Nicola Saunders"

"I have yet to meet anybody else that experiences this symptom, but my asthma attacks usually start with an itchy chin! This happens before my chest gets tight and before I start to wheeze. The itchy chin is often followed by tingling at the top of my back, and then the tightness in my chest and a wheeze. I think the best way I can describe an attack is to ask you to imagine trying to breathe through a straw that has been chewed at both ends. It feels impossible to get any air in or out."

My chest tightens like a corset

Response from Samuel Taylor:

"An asthma attack for me is usually triggered by an allergy; the worst attacks have come from cats and horses. It starts with a tickle in the back of my throat and an itchy back that can’t be scratched to satisfaction. Then, I start to feel a wheeze, like a reed vibrating in an instrument, before the wheeze becomes audible on my exhales. As my attack gets worse, I feel my chest tighten like a corset being pulled, making my breaths shallower and shallower. With my restricted breathing, I begin to feel both light-headed and nauseous. At this point, I will have hopefully had my rescue inhaler handy and have taken my first or second dose of albuterol.

I have noticed that each attack is different, depending on the trigger, but the wheeze is consistent and so is the tightening of my chest. Over the years, I have gotten better at both avoiding my triggers and identifying an oncoming attack. So, these days, my asthma feels better than it has in the past."

It feels like breathing through a straw

Response from Kyky Knight:

"Oh, it is terrible! It feels like breathing through the tiniest straw that is bent after being chewed on. The tightness in the chest is alarming, but the worst part to me is the anxiety and stress that seem to make the attack even worse. I have had one too many attacks where I discovered my rescue inhaler was past the empty line, and those moments are scary. I've gotten better with staying on top of timely medication refills with age, but during the times I've had a lapse in health insurance, it has felt pretty scary."

It is more than shortness of breath

Response from Leon Lebowitz:

"Today, I become conscious of an asthma attack when I am severely short of breath (SOB). It's different than the shortness of breath I feel, for example, when I am running or exert myself. The SOB which accompanies my asthma flare-up does not calm down on its own. I can 'feel' the difference, although it is difficult to put into words. When I feel that way, it's time to slow my breathing down (by employing pursed-lip breathing) and to use a prescribed rescue inhaler.

Of course, currently, with all my years of experience with asthma (and as a respiratory therapist), my condition is very much under control. However, when I was much younger, in the initial years of the diagnosis, an attack was devastating. I could not catch my breath, would often perspire and become red-faced, and would wheeze seemingly uncontrollably. Until I was able to understand more and use the medications of the era properly, it would result in a call to my physician."

My asthma attacks have changed over time

Response from John Bottrell:

"I am convinced asthma attacks feel different for different people. How they present may also change over time. As a kid, my asthma attacks were far more severe than attacks in the adult version of me. I also think how asthma symptoms present depends upon the trigger. I actually wrote an article describing the three different types of asthma attacks I have experienced. I also wrote another article attempting to describe what asthma attacks are like for me."

What are asthma attacks like for you?

As you have read, the feeling of an asthma attack can change from person to person. We would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences. Please share with us in the comments below or check out our stories section.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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