I was laying flat on my back, barely moving in the still darkness of my childhood home as my breath slowly wheezed in and out of my chest. My breathing was shallow and my chest ached; it felt as if a cinder block was pressing me deep into the bed. I was trying, and failing, to stay calm.
I was trying to focus on taking one breath at a time. I then had to go to the bathroom, so I sat up slowly to avoid a head rush and took a few steps forward. Panic set in as I realized my airways weren’t opening. The bathroom down the hall looked impossibly far away. I turned and stumbled back into bed. I could get a breath in a little bit more easily if I was lying down.
I whispered my boyfriend’s name. He had come with me to visit my family for a few days over the holidays, two years ago (I was 24). He couldn’t hear me. I tried again. Each “Chris” that came through my lips was labored as my chest tightened. I raised my arm and nudged him awake. He asked if I was OK and if I needed anything. “Mom,” I whispered.
He went toward my parents’ bedroom door at the same time that my mom was coming out. It was almost 6 A.M., and she was getting up to walk the dogs. She leaned down close to me and asked what I needed. Despite my hesitation, I desperately needed to get to a hospital. It got to the point where I didn’t want to know what would happen to me if I didn’t. She asked if I was sure, and I nodded—so she grabbed her keys.
With an arm around me, Chris me helped through the kitchen to the door. My feet shuffled across the floor; I couldn’t find the energy to pick them up. I tried to take in oxygen, but my airways would only open so far. Each miniature gasp for air brought a sharp pain, and suddenly, I was on the hard kitchen floor. Chris was leaning over me, his face only inches from mine. Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes down toward my ears and I whispered a plea to him: “Don’t let me die.”
My experience with asthma all started with an outdoor trip when I was young.
When I was 12 years old, I remember going hiking and wheezing uncomfortably for much of the trip. Over the next few weeks after that outing, I had a series of doctor visits that resulted in me being diagnosed with mild asthma. I did peak flow tests to measure my ability to blow air from my lungs. I also had my lungs X-rayed and my blood drawn. I was given an inhaler and told to keep it with me at all times.
Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways that go from your nose and mouth to your lungs, as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) explains. An asthma exacerbation, or an asthma attack, occurs when you’re exposed to triggers like animal fur, pollen, dust, mold, exercise, and respiratory infections. When this happens, your airways close, cutting off your airflow, and the muscles surrounding your airways can also constrict, as SELF reported previously.
My asthma was very manageable as I grew up. I would sometimes need my inhaler while playing softball, or if I was in a musty basement or camping in a tent. One to two puffs was always enough to reduce my wheezing. In college, I noticed whenever I visited home that my pets had become a new trigger for my asthma. I didn’t avoid petting them, but each visit home required a few puffs of my inhaler.
Fast-track to December 2016: Three days before I ended up on the kitchen floor with my life flashing before my eyes, I started wheezing, a symptom I considered pretty standard for me.
I nonchalantly grabbed my inhaler and took a puff. But the relief that usually sunk in within a few seconds didn’t occur. After waiting a minute, I shook the inhaler and tried again. Nothing. My inhaler wasn’t empty, and I knew it wasn’t expired. I figured the combination of dander from pets and soot and smoke from my parents’ wood stove was to blame. My wheezing wasn’t too intense, though, so I took it easy the rest of the day and assumed it would improve on its own.
By the following day, mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, my wheezing had worsened. While my family sat around the dining table at my grandparents’ house, I laid down on the couch to try to regulate my breathing. I tried drawing in slow, deep breaths, but my lungs seemed to only fill to what felt to me like half their capacity.
All day I continued to puff my inhaler, but to no avail. I was far exceeding the recommended dosage of two puffs four times a day, but I didn’t care. My parents knew I was having uncomfortable asthma symptoms, but I was downplaying the severity so they wouldn’t be worried about me. My asthma was never serious throughout my life, so I tried telling myself that this was no different.
But the next day it was clear that something was very wrong. Each breath was short and sharp and my lungs seemed like they would barely fill up with air. Walking around the house exhausted me. When my mom asked if I wanted to go to the hospital, I kept insisting I was fine. “It’ll pass,” I said.
I was starting to panic, though. My asthma had never been this bad before, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what warranted a full-blown, scary asthma attack. I told myself going to the hospital would be dramatic.
After collapsing in the kitchen, Chris carried me to the car, and my mom sped through our small-town back roads to get me to hospital.
The 10-minute drive dragged on and I thought there was no way I’d still be alive by the time we made it there. My mom whipped into the parking lot, and she and Chris supported me as we made our way toward the emergency room. As the doors slid open and we entered the lobby, I fell from their arms and collapsed. I was conscious but light-headed and barely breathing. I remember a doctor lifting me from the floor into a wheelchair.
Soon I was lying in a bed with a long, blue tube in my mouth, which I later learned was delivering a bronchodilator medication into my lungs. I relaxed as the tightness in my chest reduced and I realized I would be OK.
It turned out that in addition to my expected triggers of pet fur and wood-stove smoke exacerbating my asthma, I also had bronchitis (a respiratory disease characterized by inflammation in your bronchial tubes). The combination created the perfect storm, rendering my inhaler ineffective. I was discharged only a couple hours later with a prescription for prednisone (a steroid to help reduce inflammation) and was on it for two weeks, but my breathing still hadn’t completely returned to normal. I had my prescription refilled, and within another week I was finally feeling better.
Looking back, I probably should have gone to the hospital much sooner. And as a result of my health scare, I monitor my asthma differently now and treat it like the serious chronic disease that it is.
I acted hesitantly because I didn’t want to seem like I was overreacting to my symptoms, even though it's clear in hindsight that I should have gone on Christmas when I didn't feel as if I could get a full breath in, or even sooner. The thought of taking a trip to the hospital for asthma seemed so extreme; this wasn’t something that happened to me—I only had mild asthma (it just happened to be worse that time thanks to the added bronchitis layer). I’d dealt with asthma for half my life and thought I knew how to manage it.
Asthma is often brushed off or downplayed, but an average of 10 people die from asthma each day in the U.S., Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells SELF. So it’s always better to be safe than sorry, Dr. Parikh says. “A common problem is that people don’t always take asthma seriously,” she says. “People don’t realize it can be life-threatening.”
So if you’re uncertain about the severity of your asthma symptoms, go to the doctor sooner rather than later; you shouldn’t wait until the situation is an emergency, she adds.
So how can you gauge whether your asthma symptoms require medical attention?
Dr. Parikh says if your inhaler isn’t giving you relief after using it twice in one day, or if you’re getting winded or having trouble talking in full sentences, you should see your doctor or go to an urgent care center. Dr. Parikh also points out that coughing is often an overlooked symptom of an asthma attack. It’s also time to see a doctor if you’re using your inhaler more than twice a week, or if you wake up at night needing your inhaler—those can be signs that your asthma isn’t well managed and that you need a new asthma action plan.
As for helping prevent an asthma attack? Knowing your triggers and warning signs is important to keep exacerbated asthma from becoming an emergency situation, Dr. Parikh says. And when in doubt about whether an attack is serious, go to the hospital. “Just because you haven’t had an asthma attack before doesn’t mean you’re protected from having one in the future,” she says. “Anything that seems out of the ordinary should be addressed.”
Today, I carry my inhaler absolutely everywhere, and I also take an inhaled asthma medication (of fluticasone propionate and salmeterol) twice a day. When I start to wheeze, I take it seriously and don’t bother worrying about whether I appear dramatic by puffing my inhaler or considering a trip to the doctor. I haven’t had another severe asthma attack yet, but I now know what I’d do if I did.