Headache after asthma attack

7 Ways to Recover from a Severe Asthma Attack

During an asthma attack, your airways narrow, making it harder to breathe and get enough oxygen to your lungs. You may also have symptoms like chest pain, coughing, and wheezing. Your air passages can become so inflamed that you need urgent care at a hospital.

An asthma attack can be a frightening experience. It can take days — or even weeks — to fully recover.

If you’ve ever had an attack, the thought of having another one can be frightening. Taking some time for yourself after an asthma attack can help you recover — and possibly lower your risk of having another one.

1. Prevent another attack

Once you’ve gotten past the emergency stage, you can start thinking about getting well again. The most important thing is to take your medicine exactly as your doctor prescribed to prevent another attack.

If severe asthma attacks are becoming a pattern for you, consider meeting with your doctor to re-evaluate your treatment plan. You might need to increase the dose of your current medicine or add a new one to prevent future flare-ups.

Once you’ve adjusted your treatment plan, stick with it. Let your doctor know if you experience any new or worsening symptoms.

2. Get plenty of rest

A severe asthma attack can be serious. Afterward, you need time to rest and recuperate.

Stay home and relax for a few days. Don’t go back to work until you feel up to it — and your doctor says you’re ready.

Put chores and other responsibilities on the back burner. Ask friends and family to help out with shopping, cooking, and cleaning until you feel ready to get back into your routine.

3. Sleep well

Asthma is a sleep disruptor; an asthma attack can throw your sleep cycle out of whack. It’s hard to get any rest when you’re wheezing and coughing.

Using your inhaler can help prevent symptoms, but asthma medicines might also keep you awake. If your asthma medication is affecting your sleep, ask your doctor if you can take it earlier in the day.

Allergy triggers in your bedroom can also set off symptoms. Wash your bedding in hot water and vacuum often to get rid of dust mites. Keep pets out of your bedroom — or at least make them sleep in their own bed.

4. Breathe

Along with taking the medications your doctor prescribed, doing certain breathing exercises can help you breathe easier and feel better. A few techniques to try include:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing. In this technique, you breathe from your diaphragm instead of from your chest. When you’re doing it correctly, your stomach should move out when you breathe, but not your chest. This will help slow your breathing and reduce your body’s need for oxygen.
  • Nasal breathing. Breathing through your nose rather than your mouth adds warmth and humidity to the air, which can reduce asthma symptoms.
  • Pursed lip breathing. This technique helps relieve shortness of breath. You breathe in slowly through your nose with your mouth open and then breathe out through pursed lips as if you were about to whistle.
  • Buteyko breathing. This technique uses a series of exercises to teach you how to breathe more slowly and deeply.

Ask your doctor which breathing exercises are right for you and how to perform them correctly.

5. Eat to beat inflammation

No particular diet can prevent asthma symptoms, but eating healthy foods can help you feel better overall. If you’re overweight, losing a few pounds will give your lungs more room to expand.

At mealtimes, load up on fruits and vegetables. Plant-based foods are high in antioxidants like beta carotene and vitamins A and E, which may help combat inflammation in the lungs.

Also increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish like salmon and tuna, as well as in nuts and seeds. There is some evidence these foods might help cut down on asthma symptoms.

If you have sensitivities or allergies to particular foods, try to avoid them. Allergic reactions to food can trigger asthma symptoms.

6. Practice yoga

Exercise is a good way to strengthen your lungs and control your asthma symptoms. Plus, the slow, paced breathing you use when you practice yoga may help improve your asthma symptoms and lung function.

7. Get support

Having a severe asthma attack can be very upsetting. Even if your lungs recover quickly, your emotional state might remain fragile. If you’re feeling sad or anxious, see a psychologist or therapist. Or join a support group for people living with severe asthma.

What to Do After an Asthma Attack

An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms that causes your air passages to become smaller and makes your breathing more difficult. Symptoms of an asthma attack may include difficult and painful breathing, coughing, and wheezing. Anyone with asthma needs to have a plan for what to do during an asthma attack. But you should also know what to do after an asthma attack.

“You can’t always avoid an asthma attack, but you can check in with your doctor and use an asthma attack as a way to improve your asthma management,” said Jonathan Bernstein, MD, an associate professor in allergy and asthma at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center. “In some cases, an asthma attack may be an indication that you need to make some changes.”

Seeing your doctor after an asthma attack is especially important if you are newly diagnosed. “Discussing the attack with your doctor can help you learn more about your asthma and empower you to manage your asthma better in the future,” said Sumita Khatri, MD, co-director of the asthma center at the Cleveland Clinic.

What You Can Learn From an Asthma Attack

One of the most important things you can learn is what may have triggered your asthma attack. “Keeping a diary of asthma triggers is important because asthma triggers are different for everybody,” explained Dr. Khatri. “Increasing your awareness of your asthma triggers may prevent future attacks.” Possible triggers include:

  • Allergens like pollen, mold, dust, animal dander, or foods
  • Upper airway infections
  • Irritants like odors, chemical, pollutants, and weather changes
  • Reactions to medications like aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

“Many patients with asthma can have a gradual worsening of their asthma without being aware of it,” said Dr. Bernstein. “Your doctor will want to know what asthma medications you have been taking, how often, and how well they have been controlling your symptoms.”

Keeping track of your symptoms, triggers, medications, and peak flow rates (peak flow monitoring is recommended if you have moderate or severe asthma) should be part of your asthma action plan. And if you don’t have an asthma action plan, you should develop one with your doctor.

After an Asthma Attack: What to Do at Home

“How quickly you recover at home depends on how severe your attack was and what triggered it,” said Khatri. “If your attack was caused by an irritant, you should recover quickly. If your attack was caused by an infection, it may take a few days.” In either case, you should follow all of your doctor’s instructions, keep your follow-up appointments, rest, and drink plenty of fluids as you gradually return to normal activities.

However, you should get some help for an asthma attack or after an asthma attack if:

  • Your asthma symptoms get worse
  • Your peak flow numbers are not getting better or are going down
  • You are struggling to walk or talk because of trouble breathing

Call 911 if:

  • You are struggling to breathe
  • Your quick-relief medicine is not helping
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue

After an Asthma Attack: Changing Your Asthma Management or Asthma Attack Treatment

“After an asthma attack evaluation, your doctor may want to step up treatment, step down treatment, change treatment, or increase your doctor visits,” said Bernstein.

Some signs that your treatment plan may need to change include:

  • Frequent asthma attacks
  • Needing to take more asthma medication than prescribed
  • Waking up at night with asthma symptoms
  • Daytime activity limited by asthma
  • Continued cough, congestion, and mucous production
  • Poor peak flow rates

Knowing what to do after an asthma attack is part of learning how to manage your asthma. Each asthma attack is a chance to learn more about your asthma triggers and your asthma medications. Sharing this information with your doctor gives you and your doctor the opportunity to make the right adjustments to your asthma action plan — and that could mean fewer asthma attacks in your future.

Is Fatigue a Symptom of Asthma? – Hear From Our Experts

We decided to ask our experts a series of questions we found popular amongst our community members. One question, in particular, is the question surrounding fatigue. See how our experts answered the question, “Is fatigue a symptom of asthma?”

Fatigue can occur after a flare-up

Response from Theresa Cannizzarro, Respiratory Therapist:

Yes! While fatigue isn’t one of the more common asthma symptoms, it definitely can happen. When your body is working harder to breathe, it makes your body tired. Your body is having to compensate to bring more oxygenated blood from your lungs to the rest of your body so, in turn, you feel overall fatigued. Also, after a significant asthma flare-up, you may feel pretty fatigued for a period of time while your body recovers to its normal healthy state.

Is fatigue a sign of asthma?

Response from Leon C. Lebowitz, BA, RRT:

Asthma is characterized by hypersensitivity of the airways. We tend to describe the main symptoms of asthma as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness, which may include pain or pressure.

Although not specifically characterized as a symptom, fatigue and exhaustion may often be associated with asthma as a sign or a general feeling of the patient. Patients often report to physicians, family and friends that they feel tired all the time. The most common cause of fatigue with asthma is oxygen deprivation, or a low oxygen level. Since an exacerbation of asthma may result in low oxygen levels in the blood (hypoxemia), this in turn may manifest itself as a tired feeling that persists for the asthmatic patient.

Waking up at night and concomitant fatigue are characteristics of poorly controlled asthma. Inadequate rest and sleep during the night subsequently impacts normal functioning during the day. Again, this may manifest itself as a feeling of being tired and/or feeling constantly exhausted.

Persistent bouts of coughing combined with an increased use of one’s accessory muscles during asthma exacerbations often results in muscle fatigue and sometimes, muscle pain. The constant wheezing that can accompany exacerbations also contributes towards a feeling of being weakened, tired and fatigued.

The best approach to treating the fatigue that is associated with one’s asthma is to keep it under control. Signs that asthma may be out of control include more frequent use of one’s rescue inhaler, increased shortness of breath, self-limiting physical activities because of one’s asthma condition, and any other signs that are specific for the individual.

Coordinating the medical management with appropriate treatment plans and medication regimens can assist in bringing these symptoms under control. A physician plays a major role in this coordination. Vigilance and attention to avoiding triggers that tend to exacerbate symptoms goes a long way towards prevention as well.1-3

Asthma symptoms may lead to fatigue

Response from Lyn Harper, MPA, BSRT, RRT:

Yes! A person may be fatigued from the strain caused by labored breathing and shortness of breath. Quite simply, being unable to catch your breath is exhausting! However, you may also experience fatigue from lack of sleep due to other asthma symptoms; coughing, anxiety, and shortness of breath. Fatigue is also a symptom of oxygen levels in the blood being low, which can happen when we’re experiencing an exacerbation of symptoms.

Response from John Bottrell, RRT:

Asthma affects every asthmatic differently. For some of us, feeling tired is an early warning symptom. When you feel it, you know it’s time to take swift actions to prevent a full-fledged asthma attack. This is true even when you have controlled asthma.

But fatigue may be more common when asthma is poorly controlled. In such cases, asthma can affect your sleep. And, just feeling short of breath can make you feel tired, even exhausted. In some cases, you might even feel pooped out. So, it’s always a good idea to pay attention to what your body is saying earlier rather than later.

The earlier you take action the easier it is to reverse this and other symptoms, so you can feel normal once again. It’s also a good idea to work with your doctor to develop a daily treatment regimen so you don’t feel this symptom very often. Plus, it’s also a good idea to work with your doctor on developing a plan so you know what to do when you feel this and other asthma symptoms.

Fatigue and asthma may coexist

Response from Lorene Alba, AE-C:

Fatigue can be associated with asthma in many ways. Feeling tired can be an early warning sign that an asthma episode may be coming. Since asthma can worsen at night, symptoms can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. Fatigue is also common after having an asthma episode, so you may feel tired or even exhausted for several days or more.

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What to do after an asthma attack

3. Plan recovery time into your day
After an asthma attack it’s important to try and rest as much as you need to. Ask friends and family to help with children, or get signed off work by your doctor.

Everyone’s different so it’s important to do what’s right for you. Lots of people do feel physically and emotionally tired.

Make an urgent appointment with your GP or asthma nurse if any one of these happened to you:

  • You managed an emergency by using your blue inhaler
    If you dealt with an asthma attack by using up to 10 puffs of your blue inhaler but didn’t need to call an ambulance, you still need to see your GP the same day. Your GP or asthma nurse needs to check you’re well and review your medicines.
  • You went to hospital, or called an ambulance
    You still need to book a follow-up appointment with your GP or asthma nurse within two working days of leaving the hospital or being treated by paramedics. Your GP can check your notes and give you personal recovery advice.
  • If you had an asthma attack over two weeks ago but didn’t see your GP at the time
    It is still important to see your doctor or asthma nurse. Your asthma may still not be well controlled. You could be at risk of another asthma attack without realising.
  • You used any of your ‘rescue pack’ of steroid pills
    If your asthma got bad enough that you had to take steroid pills your GP gave you, see your GP or asthma nurse within two working days. This counts as an asthma attack.

What your GP can do to help you in the first two weeks

“You may feel this is a fuss about nothing, or that there’s not much your GP or nurse can do,” says Kathy. “But talking to your GP about what happened and how you feel means they can help you. Even changing your medicine dose or tweaking your inhaler technique can help cut your risk of another attack.”

In this urgent appointment, your doctor can:

  • give you a clear recovery plan for the next two weeks
  • prescribe a week of oral steroid tablets (prednisolone) that will help reduce airway sensitivity and inflammation. Most people will be prescribed these to take alongside their existing asthma medicines.
  • check you are no longer at immediate risk of an asthma attack – especially important if you didn’t go to hospital.
  • review your existing medicines and asthma action plan in case a change of dose or tweak of inhaler technique could help.
  • update your records to show you have had an attack.

After this appointment

  • Keep taking your medicines and looking after yourself in the way you’ve agreed with your doctor or asthma nurse.
  • Track your symptoms during this time – making notes using your phone is a simple way to build up a useful record.

If your symptoms are getting worse at any time after this appointment, book another appointment with your GP as soon as possible. Go to an NHS walk-in centre if no appointments are available.

  • If you still have symptoms after you’ve finished a course of oral steroid pills that your GP prescribed in your first appointment, book a follow-up appointment with them. “They will likely want to extend your course of steroid tablets by another week,” says Kathy.

Last updated January 2019
Next review due January 2022

Links Between Asthma and Headache

You may not think of asthma and headaches as being related, but apparently, they are. Actually, as with any modern study, many of us older asthmatics observed the link long ago, long before peer-reviewed journals started talking about it. Yet now they’re talking about it and studying it, and that’s good. It’s almost vindication.

I remember having frequent and really bad headaches when I was growing up, sometimes to the point that I would lie in my bed and cry. I remember going through a period once where I tried a new headache medicine every couple of months, and none of them did any good. Basically, like living with allergies and asthma, I just had to deal with it.

Tips on how to deal with headaches

An empathetic nurse once gave me some tips on how to deal with headaches. One was to tie a scarf tightly around my head. My mom and grandma would encourage me to lie down, and would often prepare warm, wet washcloths and place them over my eyes or forehead. Needless to say, none of these were of much use.

As an adult, I still get headaches from time to time, and some are horrible, to the point I find myself lying in my bed crying like I did as a kid. Truly, they get to the point you cannot think. I actually had to leave work once because of a headache.

In 2007, I was having frequent headaches. It was to the point that I was taking acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen or aspirin about every day. Actually, at this point, I was on an aspirin kick. I started taking them every day to prevent headaches. Feeling I was invincible, I ignored the warnings on the bottle.

This came back to haunt me, as I ended up with a GI bleed, lost a bunch of blood, and ended up in the hospital overnight. Since then I have to take prilosec every day, and my doctor says I will never get off it. I suppose this is my punishment for being a dummkopf and abusing over-the-counter medicine.

To much pain medicine

Then I learned that taking all this pain medicine had consequences. This was when I read an article at the Mayo Clinic about rebound headaches. Here I learned that if you take medicine for headache every day this may actually cause headaches, making your situation worse.1

Plus medicines like ibuprofen can be hard on your stomach, and aspirin is a blood thinner. I knew about the blood thinner part, just didn’t care so long as it treated my headaches.

Ready to try something different

So, obviously, it was time to try something different. While there wasn’t any good headache medicine when I was a kid, this was 2007, and there was a new medicine called (Ultram) tramadol. This medicine worked great until I read that it, like opiates, is probably addicting. So, my experiment with tramadol ended.

A few years ago my doctor introduced me to sumatriptan (Imitrex). He told me to only use it for the most severe headaches that do not respond to tylenol or ibuprofen. He told me that it may cause refractory headaches if I use it more than a few days in a row. So far, I have heeded these warnings.

To me, Imitrex is the best headache medicine ever. Now I just make sure I have one in my pocket, and that’s all I need to prevent headaches. In this way, it is similar to having an albuterol inhaler in my pocket, where just having it prevents asthma. Ever work yourself into an asthma attack because you were worried about not having your rescue inhaler? That used to happen to me a lot. Now, thanks to Advair, this is no longer the case.

Thanks to Advair I rarely use my rescue medicine, and thanks to Imitrex I rarely use Imitrex. In fact, I rarely get headaches nowadays. And when I do, I just take a couple ibuprofen and that usually does the trick. If not, I take a Tylenol, and that does the trick. Only when that doesn’t work do I start thinking Imitrex. And, most often, I don’t need it. Which is good, considering Imitrex costs $1 a pill. And don’t get me started on the cost of living with asthma (idea for another post, perhaps).

So, what causes headaches in general?

What causes migraines? What are migraines? These are all questions I have investigated in recent days. I do not want to go into them, as they are all covered by the experts over at migraine.com

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned suspecting the asthma-headache link long ago. As a kid, I often pondered the link. What causes my headaches?

Is it anxiety? That’s what my doctor said. I think that’s why my parents would tell me to go to bed and relax.

Is it medicine? The packet for nearly all my asthma medicine lists a headache as a common side effect.2, 3

Is it allergies? These can cause nasal stuffiness? Sinusitis? Allergic rhinitis. These can all trigger sinus headaches and migraines. In fact, one study has researchers thinking that the same cytokines and inflammatory markers responsible for asthma and allergy symptoms may also trigger migraines.4, 5

Other links between asthma and headaches

I live about a half mile from Lake Michigan and have been taking my kids there nearly every day. The water is very warm this time of year, kind of like bathwater. Anyway, my daughter Laney asked me the other day, “Dad, why don’t you ever dunk your head under the water?” How do I explain to a seven-year-old that I don’t because allergens in the water get in my nasal cavity and sinuses and cause headaches?

Chlorine from pools does the same thing, only you don’t have to dunk your head to suffer from it’s effects. I still take my kids to pools, however. Small pools are okay, outdoor pools (like the one at the condo we stayed at in Orlando during spring break) are better. But large chlorine infestations that are indoors, like Great Wolf Lodge, can result in a severe sinus irritation, headaches, and even asthma. But I digress. That’s another idea for another post.

Today the link between a headache and asthma is well researched and documented. One study showed that asthmatics are 1.5 times more likely to have headaches than non-asthmatics.6 Another study concluded asthmatics have a 50% greater risk of developing chronic migraine than non-asthmatics.5

In fact, according to our own Dr. Green from migraine.com, “Is There A Relationship Between Asthma and Migraine?”, it may even be genetic.7

We already know asthma is genetic, and therefore hereditary. Now we learn headaches may be hereditary too. Headache genes might sit right next to those pesky allergies and asthma genes, giving you an amalgamate (a nice mixture) of annoying medical conditions. Throw anxiety into this genetic mix, and gastrointestinal reflux (GERD), and you have the asthma syndrome. This is me. This is what I live with.

As I’ve written before, having a chronic disease is not something we sit around saying “woah is me” about. We don’t do that. We learn to cope. We tough it out, and we make lifestyle adjustments where we can. And we are thankful for new medicines, like Imitrex, when they come around. And we are thankful for communities like ours, and like migraine.com.

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