Here’s What Asthma Attacks Are Like
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Profile photo of John Bottrell, RRT

How do you describe your asthma attacks? When I was a kid it felt like I could only take in half a breath. So it was pretty miserable. If you don’t have asthma, and would like to know what it’s like to have asthma (and I’m not sure why you’d like to, but I’m just saying) here’s a good way to do it. Stop reading this post for a second and spend about a minute just taking in a half a breath. Then, every time you take in half a breath. And no matter how strong of an urge you have to take in a deep breath, don’t do it. If you’re like me doing this experiment, you lasted about ten seconds before you decided it was too uncomfortable and quit. Of course, if you have asthma, if you’re having an asthma attack, it’s about a hundred times worse than what you just experienced.

To me, when I was having asthma attacks — and I mean the bad ones, I envisioned a wall in my lungs preventing me from taking in a full breath. You see, while doing my experiment, you could take in a deep breath if you wanted to. When you’re having an asthma attack, YOU CAN’T. There are other phrases used to describe asthma attacks. Let’s review them.

“It’s like breathing through a straw.”

Breathing through a narrow straw does mimic the resistance you experience when breathing through narrowed lungs. It does get uncomfortable if you do this for a minute or so. But you can still take in a deep breath if you want.

“It’s like having an elephant sitting on your chest.”

This one’s fine too. In fact, having an elephant sitting on your chest mimics the wall I described above. The elephant in effect makes it so that you can only take in half a breath. But it fails to mimic the resistance created from narrowed airways.

Actually, now that I think of it, having an asthma attack is like breathing through a straw at the same time an elephant is sitting on your chest. The straw mimics the resistance to breathing while the elephant creates the pressure and the wall. Please keep in mind I’m just trying to articulate as best I can what it’s like having an asthma attack. Okay? Please do not actually have an elephant sit on your chest. And for the sake of it, don’t have your brother or sister sit on your chest either. Of course, if you did have someone sit on your chest and breathe through a straw, after about a minute of this you’d start to feel panicky. This would mimic the anxiety felt by the asthmatic during an asthma attack.

But we are not done yet. Describing an asthma attack takes more than just a straw and an elephant. It also takes a feather. I would often tell people that having an asthma attack is like having hundreds of people with feathers inside my airways, and they are all tickling my airways with their feathers all at the same time. Those evil people are also in the blood vessels in my chin and my neck ticking those areas as well, making my chin and neck itch. You can try scratching your chest, neck, and chin, but the itching doesn’t subside, not even a little. So, having an asthma attack is like breathing through a straw with an elephant on your chest with hundreds of tiny people with feathers tickling your airways all at the same time. Considering that my most common asthma triggers are respiratory viruses and allergens (particularly dust mites, mold spores, and pollen), you also have to add another 50 tiny people with feathers making your nose itch. Of course, this makes you feel like you have to sneeze. And, do you know what you need to do to get an effective sneeze? Trust me, you may never have thought of this if you never experienced an asthma attack as I’m describing here. But to get an effective sneeze you have to take in a deep breath. Now, try to do that with an elephant on your chest, while breathing through a straw, with hundreds of tiny people with feathers tickling your airways, and another 50 people with feathers tickling your nose.

Emotions during an asthma attack

Not easy is it? Shear panic ensues. Wait! Don’t go yet: I’m not done. You can’t breathe. You are anxious and scared. Yet you still don’t want to seek help. You are the one who can’t breathe, but you have empathy for other people. You don’t want to wake your parents. You don’t want to be a bother other people. You don’t feel you’re sick enough to seek help. This is irrational thinking that asthmatics are known for during asthma attacks. You need help. You need to seek help. But, more often than not, you need someone to tell you you need help. I have had many people do that for me, and I’ve done it for other asthmatics too.

So, as you can envision through my analogies here, asthma attacks can be pretty miserable.

Thankfully, however, asthma attacks are completely reversible with time or treatment. In fact, thanks to modern asthma wisdom and treatment, they can be prevented, or at least made far less severe and easier to control when they do occur. I personally can no longer use the wall or elephant analogies to describe my asthma attacks, and I’m very glad about that. That’s a testament to how much asthma wisdom and medicine has improved just in my short lifespan.

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