Only people who have asthma fully understand how traumatizing this health condition can be. If someone has asthma, their immune system reacts disproportionately to certain substances like pet dander or pollen, though specific triggers vary from person to person. These triggers provoke inflammation, constriction, and excessive mucus production in a person’s airways, which can lead to symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, and wheezing (an alarming whistling sound during breathing).
For a glimpse into the reality of life with this health issue, we had people who have been through asthma attacks explain exactly what they feel like, plus what they do when their asthma symptoms flare up.
1. “It can feel like I'm breathing through a squished straw.”
Kate G. was diagnosed with asthma after an outdoor excursion. “I started wheezing partway up the mountain while hiking during a school field trip,” Kate, whose main triggers include physical exertion, smoke, mold, mildew, dust, cold air, and pet dander, tells SELF.
During an asthma attack, she says, “it feels like someone or something is sitting on my chest and constricting my lungs so I can only breathe in partway. It can feel like I'm breathing through a squished straw.” Sometimes she experiences feelings of panic, lightheadedness, and chest pain.
To get relief, Kate uses a fast-acting inhaler with medication to quickly open her constricted airways. (This kind of medication is called a bronchodilator.) “If I'm not near my inhaler, which is rare, I go outside and try to breathe deeply and slowly,” she says. “Lying down also helps.”
2. “It feels like someone is squeezing the air out of me.”
Kay M. had her first attack at home next to a Christmas tree, she says. “I have an allergy to evergreen trees, I later found out, and I just started gasping for air,” she tells SELF. “It starts out with a little chest tightness, and then it just keeps on going [until] it feels like someone is squeezing the air out of me.”
Kay uses a daily, long-term medication to keep her airways dilated and prevent attacks, as well as a fast-acting inhaler as needed.
3. “I try to yawn to get more air in, and my chest literally stops the yawn from happening because it’s so tight and inflamed.”
Paige J. says that her triggers include exposure to pollen, dust, and animals like cats and dogs. “I can be fine around a dog or cat for minutes or even hours at a time during the day, but later that night I’ll wake up with terrible asthma and tightness of my chest,” she tells SELF. “It’s important that family and friends realize this, because those around you can’t always see your symptoms and thus might not always take them seriously.”
In fact, Paige often gets quiet during asthma attacks. “Talking can feel like too much effort … I become 100 percent absorbed in just trying to breathe, but this often doesn’t look like a big deal from the outside,” she says. On the inside, though, she’s dealing with the terrible feeling that her lungs aren’t working. “I try to yawn to get more air in, and my chest literally stops the yawn from happening because it’s so tight and inflamed.”
Paige says she usually carries her rescue inhaler with her, but if for some reason she doesn’t have it, she tries to get fresh air, drink coffee, or eat dark chocolate. (There’s some evidence that caffeine can act as a bronchodilator, but you should only use it as a method of treating asthma symptoms in certain situations if your doctor has included it in your asthma action plan.)
4. “It starts with a cough that seems to be centered in my throat because there is no air getting into my lungs.”
Victoria B., whose triggers include mold and a food allergy to turkey, says that a cough often kicks off her asthma attacks. “It starts with a cough that seems to be centered in my throat because there is no air getting into my lungs,” she tells SELF. “Very shortly thereafter, the coughing stops and I start to wheeze. It gets harder to breathe and my chest starts to hurt.”
If the attack is drawn out, her fingers and lips even start to turn blue due to the lack of oxygen. “It’s hard not to panic,” she says. “It feels like what little air there is in the room is being vacuumed [out], and I can't get any of it in my lungs. It is very, very scary.”
Victoria says she gets relief from using corticosteroids to control inflammation in her airways, and in the event of an attack, she uses a rescue inhaler. “If I have an attack and don't have a rescue inhaler available, I ingest as much caffeine as possible to act as a bronchodilator,” she says. “For good measure, I keep a bottle of Mountain Dew in the car since it has a great deal of caffeine. All of these emergency measures work quite well for me and have curtailed attacks within a few minutes.”
5. “The attacks can happen so quickly and out of nowhere, so I feel like I’m really not in control of my own body.”
Marisa Z. tells SELF that her asthma is triggered by pets, dust, respiratory infections, and certain foods like shellfish.
“I explain it to people like you are breathing through a coffee stirrer straw, and you just can't get enough breath,” she says. Attacks are mentally tough on her as well. “The attacks can happen so quickly and out of nowhere, so I feel like I’m really not in control of your own body. Not being to breathe in and out the way my body is designed to do is quite scary,” Marisa says.
To get relief, Marisa relies on a rescue inhaler and also uses the Butekyo method, which is a breathing technique that focuses on consciously reducing a person’s breathing rate to avoid hyperventilation. To try to prevent attacks from happening in the first place, she takes steps like wearing heavy-duty masks when she does household chores that might kick up dust or other airborne substances.
6. “I can't do anything but focus on getting oxygen into my lungs.”
Dairy triggers the majority of Susan S.’s asthma attacks, she tells SELF.
“It feels like I am suffocating,” she says. “I have to focus on breathing and can't talk. In fact, I can't do anything but focus on getting oxygen into my lungs. Imagine you are drowning. You can't get a breath. You would do anything to breathe.”
Susan says she hasn’t found an inhaler that works for her, so she’s trying to avoid dairy altogether for the time being.
7. “It's a horrible, helpless feeling, and it comes on fast.”
Erin S. tells SELF that she developed asthma after having a severe case of pneumonia. Her triggers include crying or laughing too hard (yes, strong emotions can induce asthma attacks), pollen, bad air quality, and cigarette smoke.
“I've been out on runs before, especially [on] humid spring [or] summer days, my throat will suddenly feel like it’s closing,” she says. “It's a horrible, helpless feeling, and it comes on fast. Everything stops, and the wheezing starts as I try to suck in air. I feel my whole body struggle just to get in oxygen.”
In those situations, Erin says her rescue inhaler helps, along with drinking black coffee. “[Attacks] are truly frightening, and asthma is no joke,” she says.