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What is a Bronchial Spasm?

By Melanie Smeltzer
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A bronchial spasm, also known as a bronchospasm, is a sudden and abnormal constriction of the smooth muscles in the walls of the bronchioles. This constriction then causes an acute narrowing of the respiratory airways. This can be caused by a number of things, but most often is the result of allergies, chronic respiratory diseases, or infection.

Bronchospasms occur when the passages that lead to the lungs become narrow or blocked due to the muscles contracting, or a sudden inflammation of the lining of the lungs. During inflammation, the lungs may create excess mucus, which will cause a further narrowing in the airways. A bronchial spasm is generally sudden, and may be mild to severe.

The symptoms of a bronchial spasm may vary from person to person in severity and duration. Most people will experience shortness of breath and a tightness or pain in the chest. Others may develop wheezing and a frequent cough that may or may not be productive. Depending upon the severity of the case, some people may be affected by only a few symptoms, while others may experience them all.

Those who suffer from long-standing conditions such as asthma are considered more at risk for a bronchial spasm than others. There are, however, a number of other reasons why a person may develop this condition. Two of the most common causes are allergies and irritants. Mold, pollen, and pet dander typically cause a sudden reaction, but foods such as nuts or shellfish can cause a problem as well. Irritants such as smoke, aerosol sprays, or chemicals may also create a bronchospasm.

In addition to external factors and health conditions, things such as exercise, infection, and emotional trauma may cause a bronchial spasm to occur. Those who are already prone to lung ailments are more likely to develop a bronchospasm during exercise, but other factors such as cold weather may also trigger bronchial issues. Viral and bacterial infections of the respiratory tract may cause the airways to narrow suddenly. High stress or fear can also occasionally lead to a constriction of the airways, though this sometimes occurs over time instead of suddenly.

Most bronchial spasms are treated with an inhaler to help open the airways. The patient may also receive an expectorant to help clear away mucus, or a cough suppressant if the cough is non-productive. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the bronchospasm is the result of a respiratory infection.

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Discussion Comments
By orangey03 — On Dec 03, 2011

@julies – I would definitely limit my winter exercise to indoor activity. The cold weather is surely causing your spasms, and I imagine they are pretty painful.

I don't have asthma, but I do have bronchial spasms when I work outdoors in very cold weather. If I walk briskly or do yard work that requires a lot of energy, I find myself breathing hard, and the piercing cold hurts my chest.

I have to stop what I am doing until the pain subsides. I think my bronchial tubes are attempting to shut out the cold air, much as we would shut the front door if a cold breeze were blowing into the house. They are doing their job and protecting the body from something that they see as harmful.

By Perdido — On Dec 02, 2011

@cloudel – Though I don't have asthma, I do know what your friend is feeling when she panics because her airways are constricting. I suffer from extreme anxiety, and I have panic attacks that make it hard to breathe.

The first time I had one, I thought I might be having a heart attack. I had chest pain, but my main concern was that I couldn't seem to catch a breath.

Luckily, one of my coworkers had experienced the same thing before, and she talked me through it. She told me that I was only having a panic attack, and that I needed to go to a safe place in my mind. She said I should close my eyes and block out reality for a moment.

It actually worked. Within a few minutes, the spasm was over, and I was all right. She saved me a large hospital bill and a trip to the emergency room!

By cloudel — On Dec 01, 2011

A bronchial spasm sounds terribly painful. I have never experienced it, nor have I ever had asthma, but my friend has. It is scary when she suddenly begins to wheeze and reaches for her inhaler.

Pollen aggravates her asthma, and since she cannot absolutely avoid being outdoors in spring, she just has to make sure her inhaler is always with her. I hate that she cannot enjoy this beautiful time of year outside with me, but if she tries to, she inevitably reacts to the pollen.

She said it feels like her chest is closing up entirely. Even though it happens fairly often, she never gets used to it. She panics a little with every spasm.

By OeKc05 — On Nov 30, 2011

I had bronchitis one time, and it brought on bronchial spasms. Breathing was so hard to do, because with every breath, I had the urge to cough.

I would cough so hard that my stomach and throat would hurt. Every time, a large amount of mucus would come up. It seemed I had an unending supply of the stuff, and it was making my airway smaller.

When it became clear that the bronchitis was not going away on its own, I went to my doctor. She gave me some strong antibiotics, and the cough began to lighten up. Slowly, my airway was opening up again.

By julies — On Nov 30, 2011

If you have a history of bronchial spasms that are the symptoms of an asthma attack, should you continue to exercise on a regular basis?

I love to run, but find that when it is cold outside I get a lot of these spasms. I have a history of asthma, but don't use an inhaler very often.

I seem to have the worst trouble with this in the winter when I run outside. If I exercise indoors, this rarely happens.

I am just wondering if I can continue to run if I keep getting these spasms, or should I find other ways to exercise in the winter?

By John57 — On Nov 29, 2011

Being around someone who is having a bronchial spasm can be kind of scary if you don't know what is going on.

When my husband had a bad upper respiratory infection that turned in to pneumonia, he would have many of these.

I think the bronchial spasm symptoms that concerned me the most were the wheezing and when he would complain of his chest feeling tight.

He has never had an asthma diagnosis or any other type of ongoing symptoms before this. When he saw the doctor he immediately started him on antibiotics. Thankfully, it had not progressed to the point where he needed to be in the hospital.

It still took at least 2-3 weeks before he began to feel like normal and get his strength back.

By honeybees — On Nov 28, 2011

My son is in the habit of carrying an inhaler with him just about anywhere he goes. He never knows when he might have a bronchial spasm, and the inhaler will usually give him immediate relief.

He has had asthma since he was young and is allergic to many animals. He loves being around horses, dogs and cats, but really suffers if he spends much time around them.

If he walks in to a house that has indoor pets, he knows immediately even before he sees them, as he starts to get red, itchy eyes.

Pet dander and fur are probably the biggest contributing factor to his bronchial spasm causes. Of course, it doesn't help matters that he also smokes.

All of these factors really play a role in his symptoms. Some of them are more easily controlled than others, but having an inhaler has become a normal way of life for him.

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