An asthma attack can occur when an irritant—usually a common substance like smoke, cold or dry air, pollen, mold, or dust mites—meets a set of temperamental lungs. Hormonal fluctuations, stress, and anger can also trigger an attack. Sometimes there’s no apparent cause. Your difficulty in breathing occurs because the bronchi, the tubes that allow oxygen into your lungs, go into spasms. Accompanying them may be coughing and tightness in the chest. The spasms trigger the release of histamine and other chemicals that cause inflammation and the production of airway-clogging mucus.
For severe asthma attacks—the kind of tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath that can be really frightening—most people do just what the doctor recommends. Often, that means quick action with an inhaler containing a drug such as albuterol. If that’s what you use, and it works, don’t give it up. And always have your doctor’s telephone number near at hand in case of severe attacks. But for non-emergencies, you’ll want to figure out ways to help yourself breathe easy.
Breathe easier right now
• When an asthma attack comes on, stay calm. Panic can make your symptoms worse. Help yourself along with this visualization trick: Close your eyes. As you inhale, see your lungs expand and fill with white light, and feel your breathing become easier. Repeat this exercise twice more, then open your eyes.
• In a pinch, have a strong cup of coffee or two 355-mL cans of caffeinated cola. Caffeine is chemically related to theophylline, a standard medication for asthma. It helps open airways.
Natural remedies for asthma
• Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have been using the herb ginkgo to treat asthma for centuries. If you want to try it, take 60 to 250 milligrams of standardized ginkgo extract once a day. One recent study suggests that this herb interferes with a protein in the blood that contributes to airway spasms.