Updated 12 July 2016

What is an asthma exacerbation?

Things become especially difficult when you have an asthma exacerbation – also known as an asthma attack. Know the triggers and how to control the symptoms.


What is an asthma exacerbation?

Asthma is a chronic medical condition that involves the airways in the lungs. Having a chronic condition means that this condition will persist for a long time or the symptoms of the condition will occur repeatedly. Ideally under normal circumstances, these airways allow air to come in and out of the lungs but, if you’re an asthma sufferer, they’re always inflamed. Things become especially difficult when you have an asthma exacerbation – also known as an asthma attack.

What are we looking at?

When you have an asthma exacerbation, your airways become even more swollen, and the muscles around them can tighten. This causes your breathing tubes to narrow, and makes it difficult for air to move in and out of your lungs. The symptoms of an attack include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a tight chest. (If you or your child suffer from any of these symptoms, consult with your medical practitioner.)

There are also two types of exacerbations. The first kind develops slowly, normally over a period of days, if not weeks. The causes behind these attacks are often upper respiratory tract infections, or poor control of the disease (i.e. not following the doctor’s orders).

The other type of exacerbation can develop in less than three hours. The causes behind these attacks include inhaled allergens, the ingestion of certain types of medication, reactions to additives and preservatives in foods or even emotional stress.

Keep in mind that the intensity of exacerbations can vary. In some cases, the symptoms are so mild, you can’t detect them. At other times, they can be severe enough to be life-threatening.

How to control the symptoms

Some of the ways you can control your asthma are listed below, but bear in mind this is not an exhaustive list and your doctor will always be the best source of advice.

• Visit your physician regularly. Asthma control is dependent on receiving the applicable medication in the correct dose for your personal needs. Not all patients are the same.

• Check that you know how to use your inhaler properly. Your doctor can help with this. A surprisingly large amount of asthma sufferers don’t know how to use their devices correctly and suffer unnecessary discomfort and attacks as a result.

• Talk to your doctor about an asthma action plan. This will be a set of instructions on how to manage your asthma in many different scenarios, including during a worsening of the condition.

The situation in South Africa
How are things on the domestic front? The short answer is that South Africa has the highest death rate from asthma in the world. So says the 2014 Global Asthma Report, done by the Global Asthma Network. Improving this ranking is precisely why early diagnosis and proper treatment are so important locally.

Read more:
Kids with pets may have lower asthma risk
Child asthma rates leveling off but not for poor kids


Ask the Expert

Asthma Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received of several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others.Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute

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