What Does an Asthma Attack Feel Like?

What Does an Asthma Attack Feel Like?

I have been asked this more times than I can count by both non asthmatics as well as fellow asthmatics. I found myself giving the same answer over and over. When I was in college studying and training to be come a Respiratory Therapist, I started asking people the same question. Now I always ask my asthmatic patients when I am at work in the hospital the same question I have been asked for over two decades.

What does an asthma attack feel like to you?

What I have realized over the years is that no two people will give the same answer. Just as asthma is a widely varying disease, so are its symptoms. Also, not all asthma attacks that you have yourself will feel the same. I know mine don’t always feel the same and I will have varying symptoms as well. You more than likely have noticed that when your asthma is acting up you may experience more than one of the descriptions listed below.

“Fish out of water”
This is a pretty common answer I hear when I ask asthmatics what it feels like. Think of if you were suddenly submerged in water and trying to breathe. Impossible to do. It is a terrible suffocating feeling.

“There is an elephant sitting on my chest”
This one feels exactly like what it sounds like. Literally like there is an elephant sitting on your chest. It is hard to get air in and out. No matter what position you are in it is difficult to breathe.

“I cough so much that I can’t catch my breath”
Coughing can definitely make you short of breath. Especially when you are trying to cough out any mucus that is in your lungs. It’s hard work having to cough hard enough to clear it all out which can lead to being short of breath. Also, coughing due to that insatiable tickling feeling down in your lungs can lead to shortness of breath as well.

“My chest feels tight and heavy”
This one is usually how I feel when my asthma is acting up. For me, an asthma attack feels like I am wearing a really tight corset while trying to breathe through a coffee stirrer straw. I personally don’t wheeze and my chest gets really tight like I am wearing a corset that is four sizes too small. When the airways constrict it leads to the tight feeling.

“I feel like there is a pillow being held over my face”
This description is similar to a fish out of water. Trying to breathe with anything covering your mouth and nose is pretty close to impossible. When your airways are so inflamed and filled with mucus, it can definitely lead to the suffocating feeling.

“I am short of breath and can hear wheezing”
The wheezing sound and feeling comes from when your smaller airways become inflamed and narrow and produce extra mucus. Wheezing is most commonly heard when you exhale, but can also be heard when you inhale. This leads to shortness of breath.

The things I have listed are just a small fraction of the answers I have heard from asthmatics over the years. It is important to remember that any asthma symptoms you may be experiencing are classified as an “attack.” Also, when you are experiencing any asthma symptoms it is imperative to follow your written asthma action plan and seek medical attention when warranted.
My question to you is the same one I ask my asthma patients in the hospital. What does an asthma attack feel like to you? Comment below and let me know!

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.

Comments

View Comments (39)
  • tme0128
    1 month ago

    Hi Mr. Leon,
    Have you ever heard of someone having to yawn to try and catch their breath? In other words for me to get a deep breath, I have to keep yawning and then struggle to take a deep breath, basically trying to inhale. When I do finally get that breath, I feel such relief. In your comments here, people keep saying they feel heaviness on their chest, but I never experience that. What are your thoughts?

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    1 month ago

    Hi tme0128 and thank you for reaching out. In fact, the yawn is (sometimes) considered to be a basic physiologic mechanism that results in a complete deep inhalation (also referred to as a ‘sigh’). It is a natural maneuver that makes certain the lung is expanded to total lung capacity. By doing this (subconsciously) about ten times an hour, it insures the lung is functioning properly. I hope this brief reply provides you with the information you are looking for. Wishing you well, Leon (site moderator)

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    1 month ago

    Hi again, tme0128, and I’m sorry to hear this reply is not helping you. We are not able to provide medical advice or diagnostics over the internet (for your own safety, however, we do hear you! If you are, as you said, ‘desperate’ to catch your breath and have no answer as to why this is happening, you should really continue to pursue the right doctor for an evaluation and an assessment. The struggle to breathe (for any reason) is a genuine concern and, in most cases, must be managed medically. If it turns out NOT to be asthma, you’ll need to find out what exactly is causing this breathing issue for you. Please do check back and let us know how you’re doing. Wishing you well, Leon (site moderator)

  • tme0128
    1 month ago

    Thank you for your answer, but I am miserable but I am struggling to catch my breath almost every day, In your experience, does this sound like asthma to you or maybe something else? If not asthma what else could it be? Doctors can’t find an answer for me and I’m desperate. 🙁

  • chulamystic
    2 months ago

    For me, my asthma attacks feel like i have an elastic band around my chest and throat. My stomach feels bloated and like it can hold no more air.
    The more I try to get air the more exhausted my whole body becomes. I want to cry but we all know that only makes things worse. Ive clutched onto things that later I realized i had made an indentation.scary.
    I can only sit up and forward in attempt to get air. Lying down is like death…it just makes breathing worse.
    Afterwards I become a weepy mess. I cant fall asleep because I am afraid Im going to have another attack and die. I know it sounds morbid but these are real feelings. Once I calm down enough to sleep I usually sleep for hours.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    2 months ago

    Hi again, chulamystic and thanks for sharing your own personal experiences as to what an asthma attack feels like for you. You do sound like you understand your condition quite well – what you can and can’t do to keep you breathing trouble-free. Sometimes, you just have to be your own best advocate. Keep up the good work! Leon (site moderator)

  • krishwaecosse
    2 months ago

    To me, an asthma attack feels like I’m in a steam room or sauna, and slowly the air is being sucked out of the room. It’s like all the air coming in to my lungs is too hot and they’re contracting.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    2 months ago

    Hi krishwaecosse and thanks for posting what your asthma feels like in response to this article. You’ve been quite descriptive in a way that is unique to what I’ve read and heard from patients. You really provide some additional insight for us to consider. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • Wiley7205
    2 months ago

    I don’t cough excessively with mine even with a severe attack. I get really, really tight. My bases don’t work. 95% of the time I have to go on bipap for a day or two in the ICU. Plus mine is painful. The ER doctors here have finally learned that attacks can be extremely painful and now treat them accordingly. It took a lot of years for my pulmonary doctor to convince them to do so. That is usually the first thing they do as soon as they can get an IV in…pain med, Magnesium, Solu-Medrol.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    2 months ago

    Hi Wiley7205 and thanks for summarizing your condition and for sharing it with our online community. From what you’ve shared, it sounds like you have a good understanding of your condition and how best to treat it. You also seem to have your medical treat trained properly in how to treat you most efficiently. Sometimes it works being your own best self advocate. Keep up the good work! Leon (site moderator)

  • kshav6
    4 months ago

    I was told I have upper respiratory pulmonary dysfunction which is treated like asthma. When I google it, I find nothing called that. My attacks happen more in my throat/bronchial tubes. It comes on suddenly and feels like my throat just constricts and it makes me cough. A rescue inhaler helps and then I have a lot of mucus in my throat afterwards. If I don’t get to a rescue inhaler fast enough I can cough to the point of almost throwing up. When I have a particularly hard time of it, I feel the pressure in my chest and have a hard time getting a good deep breath. I had a PA tell me once when she listened to me breath that it sounded like I was breathing through a coffee straw.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    4 months ago

    Hi kshav6 and thanks for your post. You describe an interesting condition with symptoms can be characteristic of lung disease. Have you considered seeing a specialist – possibly a pulmonologist. You ‘being told’ you have ‘upper pulmonary dysfunction’ does not sound like a thorough medical assessment with diagnosis, treatment plan and medication regimen. We cannot provide medical advice or diagnostics over the internet (for your own safety), but I would encourage you to seek our a professional physician who can provide you with a thorough evaluation. There was no question in your posted comment so if my reply is not applicable to your situation, be sure to let me know. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • SandiOli
    4 months ago

    I usually say this to people that seem oblivious to what a frightening feeling an asthmatic attack is like. “It feels like someone has put a wad of cheese cloth in my throat, and said, “Now breathe!” Or, I will ask them to put their hand over their mouth and nose and say “Breathe normal now.” …knowing they can’t. Most always they say “Oh wow, that must be scary.”

  • pch5010
    4 months ago

    Attacks are terrifying to me. I’m never sure I’m going to find that next breath. I cough to the point of feeling like I will pass out. I get weak and exhausted. I know staying calm through an attack is important though it is difficult when you can’t breathe.
    I have that feeling of breathing through a very narrow straw pretty regularly. I often feel like air is trapped on a regular basis as well. Those are my cues that an attack could be on its way and I start all of my routines to head that off. I agree with some of the other comments…how I feel just before or during an attack/exacerbation depends on the time of year. I was diagnosed about 13 years ago, in my late 40s, but only in recent years has it begun to impact my life so dealing with asthma is somewhat new to me. Reading everyone’s comments is extremely helpful. Thank you!

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    4 months ago

    Hi again, pch5010 and thanks for your post. We’re so glad you find it helpful to be here in our online community and appreciate you sharing how you feel managing your asthma. We do have an entire membership that understands what you’re going through and knows how you feel. You are never alone here! Wishing you the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • smallrain
    5 months ago

    I feel as if a tight band is around my chest. I also feel as if an elephant is sitting on my chest. If it is really bad I feel as if I might pass out.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    5 months ago

    Hi smallrain and thanks for your post. You’ve been very descriptive about how an asthma attack feels to you. If these type symptoms (you describe) persist or worsen even OR, if you repeatedly feel as though you might pass out, I would urge you to discuss this with your physician. Please do check back and let us know how you’re doing. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • Lindsay
    5 months ago

    Hi. I have had asthma all my life. It had gotten better as I got older then worse again. This is a bad summer for me. I can relate to just about every description in this article. I would have to say to explain it in one spicific way would be to compare it to a straw. It is like trying to breath through a straw that has been chewed up. I also get the pins and needles feeling through my arms and chest and the pain in my back.

    The question I have a hard time answering is when I am asked why my asthma is acting up now (“Why didnt it act up the other day when you were doing yard work?”) I feel like saying well my asthma and I were getting along that day, today I must have done something to make it mad.

    I have learned 2 ways to cope with mine besides medication. First is if it is winter I will go outside and try to take deep breaths. Second is during a bad attack I breath in through my nose and out through my mouth. I try to breath as slow as I can. It is very scary. Not being able to breath is the worse feeling ever.

  • crabphile
    5 months ago

    I count myself as one of the lucky ones.
    I was diagnosed with Asthma about 18 months ago, and I was completely shocked. I did not understand the range and variety of symptoms that asthma patience can experience.
    I am on medications including a rescue inhaler that I use infrequently. I have a compressor/nebulizer that I used daily for a number of months, then, after consulting with my pulmonologist, stopped those daily treatments.
    I can go several days without needing the rescue inhaler, or I may use it a couple of times a day for several days.
    I have had only one real extreme attack, just before my diagnosis. It was terrifying, and I could have and should have avoided it. I was alone, and frustrated, and pushing my limits. Never again!
    My almost daily symptoms are a feeling of thickness in my bronchus, coughing, and fatigue.
    I have lived in the same area all my life, and that may be why I don’t easily recognize triggers. Still working on that.
    Thank you for this forum.

  • lauren.tucker moderator
    5 months ago

    Thanks for being here crabphile and for joining the conversation. I am glad to hear you have been able to control your asthma. I would love for you to share your story so we can feauture it on our site. No obligation but here is a link- https://asthma.net/stories/ We are glad to have you here and please reach out to us anytime. Best, Lauren (Asthma.net Team)

  • ceecee
    6 months ago

    Yes, I was on Breo Ellipta but that gave me severe herpes breakouts even after fully rinsing. Now I am on ubitron and an er inhaler. I don’t take the ubitron everyday as my lungs hurt after awhile. I also have GERD which I am trying to treat with DCL, apple cider vinegar and losing weight which has helped. Omezeprole hurts my hiatal hernia if I take it too many days in a row….so I am a mess.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    6 months ago

    Hi again, ceecee and thanks for the prompt response and additional information. I would urge you to work collaboratively with your prescribing physician. Together you both can work on getting your myriad symptoms under more control. Please do check back and let us know how you’re doing. Warm regards, Leon (site moderator)

  • ceecee
    6 months ago

    My lungs are tight a lot of the time. I sigh a lot and have to consciously take a full breath. When I can take a full breath, my lungs tickle. I cough about 10 times a day and I always have post nasal drip. I have extreme fatigue several days a week. This really affects my daily living.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    6 months ago

    Hi ceecee and thanks for sharing you current experience with asthma. Are you under the care of a physician who is managing your condition? You symptoms sounds like they would have an effect on your daily living conditions. Wishing you the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • BreathAgain
    6 months ago

    It feels like someone is bear hugging my lungs. That’s when I catch a virus or the weather changes. High Pollen count feels different it’s almost like some sucked the oxygen out of the room.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    6 months ago

    Hi again, BreathAgain and thanks for sharing what an asthma attack feels like for you! We appreciate your input! All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • RoseJemini
    6 months ago

    Definitely depends on the attack. Physical overexertion- cant inhale. Anxiety, humidity, overheated- elephant on the chest ( i spend much of the summer this way). Cold dry air- razor blades when i breathe. Lint (laundromats in general) or just “out of nowhere”- too much phelm, postnasal drip, and “choking on my own air”. Been having exertion- and cold- induced attacks since i was a kid, rest showed up in college, shortly before i was first diagnosed. Seems i have grown into it! Carry a ProAir everywhere i go, and have a Flovent to take for 2-3 weeks if attacks get too often. Prednisone is a wonder when i get bronchitis or a URI. Used to take Symbicort as a long-act but they dont tell you it reacts poorly with anxiety! By end of first week taking it, i would be thru-the-roof-tinfoil-hat-paranoid until a day or so after stopping taking it. Scary stuff

  • Katbird
    6 months ago

    Feel like breathing through lungs stuffed with cotton.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    6 months ago

    Hi Katbird and thanks for sharing how you feel about what an asthma attack feels like! All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • pixiegirl314
    7 months ago

    All depends on the asthma attack. Lately it has been coughing for my mild ones. The really bad ones though feel like someone took a knife and stabbed me in the lungs…

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    7 months ago

    Hi pixiegirl1314 and thanks for sharing your experiences with asthma and what an attack feels like. We appreciate your input.
    All the best,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • BreathlessInPittman
    7 months ago

    I can totally identify with the pic of the elephant because I have an elephant of my own. His name is Peanuts.I just wish Peanuts was as polite as the one in the pic. When all that weight and pressure of the elephant is spread over the whole chest, he doesn’t feel as heavy as Peanuts because Peanuts loves doing a trunk stand in the middle of my chest. So the concentrated pressure can tend to freak you out if you can’t find relief soon.
    Yes, I have adult onset severe persistent asthma. Peanuts and I have spent more time in the hospital and ICU than I care to admit.
    It is an unsettling feeling when you realize you have a favorite room at the hospital!

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    7 months ago

    Hi BrethlessInPittman and thanks for your post. I’m sorry to hear you’re facing such challenges with your own ‘pet elephant’. Repeated stays in the hospital can be challenging and we have an entire community that understands what you’re feeling and what you’re going through. If there is anything we can assist you with, please let me or any other moderator/team member know. Wishing you the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    7 months ago

    It’s our pleasure, BreathlessInPittman. Have a good night. Leon (site moderator)

  • BreathlessInPittman
    7 months ago

    Thank you

  • Mimi
    2 years ago

    Hi, I’m 61 years old and was old diagnosed with asthma a year ago. I wasn’t given much information, just initially asked what I use for my asthma. When I said I don’t have asthma, I was told that my cough sure sounds like I do…! I do have times that my chest feels very tight and I have a difficult time breathing. I also have allergies. I was given two inhalers and I do get relief from using them, but I was told to use the one routinely and the other as a rescue inhaler only. When I looked the medication up, they both contained albuterol, so I’m confused.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi Mimi and thanks for your post. While we cannot provide medical advice over the internet (for your own safety), your comment warrants a response. It sounds like your health care provider was prescribing a rescue medication inhaler and a control medication inhaler. If both type inhalers you have contain albuterol, you may want to revisit with the physician and have it all reevaluated and explained to you more thoroughly. I thought you might find reading this article to be helpful:https://asthma.net/treatment/prevention/ Please check back with us and let us know how you’re doing. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • SoCalSun
    2 years ago

    Taking in air and breathing out through a tiny straw like a coffee straw stirrer is what my asthma attacks feel like . I don’t wheeze ! I do cough non stop and it’s hard to catch my breath and my chest gets tight and the air I take in and out feels like it gets much less with each breath .

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi SoCalSun – thanks so much for sharing what breathing with asthma feels like for you. We’re glad to have you as part of our online community. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

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