What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a long-term respiratory condition that manifests in a patient’s airways, making the upper respiratory tract overly sensitive to allergens or toxins. It is a very common condition, affecting an estimated 235 million people worldwide, and, in the majority of cases, is considered to be a relatively mild disease.
Most of the time, a patient with asthma will not experience any significant ill effects as a result of their condition. It only becomes noticeable when they come into contact with a substance that irritates their airways, known as an asthma trigger. When this happens, two different reactions take place.
The first is that the muscles surrounding their airways contract, causing a narrowing of the trachea and bronchi (upper respiratory tract) that limits the amount of air the patient can breathe in and out. Secondly, the inner lining of the airway becomes inflamed and swells, further narrowing the passage.
Some patients will also experience an overproduction of mucus or phlegm during the attack which builds up on the inner surface of the airways and increases the respiratory restriction.
The constriction of the airways is the main characteristic of asthma attacks and can present a serious risk to a patient’s health unless they receive medical treatment as soon as possible.
Common Treatments for Asthma
Many patients who experience asthma attacks will have standard medication for when they feel an attack developing. In most cases, this front-line treatment will take the form of an inhaler containing a fast-acting medication that expands the airway, such as salbutamol or albuterol.
Unfortunately, however, this standard approach to asthma treatment is only effective for some patients. Acute or severe asthma, also known as status asthmaticus, is a form of the condition that is characterized by a lack of response to traditional beta-agonist therapies like albuterol. If a patient with acute asthma feels themselves starting to become short of breath, then they should seek medical attention immediately to receive acute asthma attack treatment.
Emergency Treatments for Acute Asthma Attacks
For patients experiencing an acute asthma attack, the first-line treatment is to administer a dose of corticosteroids. These may be taken orally if the patient is able to swallow them, although in cases of severe respiratory distress, they are more commonly administered parenterally (often intravenously). These drugs help to reduce the inflammation that is restricting the airway, easing the patient’s breathing.
Time is of the essence when using corticosteroids for acute asthma attack treatment. The drugs can take up to 12 hours to take effect, and so administering them as early as possible is necessary to ensure the safety of the patient. During this time, patients can be provided with oxygen to maximize their breathing efficiency; in very severe cases, a patient may be intubated (a breathing tube is fed down the upper airway to deliver oxygen to the lungs more directly).
Doctors may also choose to treat a patient with ipratropium (also known as Atrovent), which is a bronchodilator drug that is known to be effective in some patients with severe asthma. However, as with albuterol and salbutamol, this medication may not have an effect on the patient’s condition, and so it is generally used as a second-line therapy.