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What is Status Asthmaticus?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Status asthmaticus is a life-threatening, acute asthma attack that is not relieved by inhalers or other common treatment measures. The airways become inflamed and constricted to the point that breathing becomes very difficult, and an individual can potentially lose consciousness if the condition is not addressed right away. Once admitted into the emergency room, a patient is usually given oxygen and intravenous medications to reopen the airways. Following immediate treatment, a specialist can prescribe drugs to manage symptoms and inform the patient of ways to prevent future attacks.

Asthma is a very common condition in adults and children. Allergens, cold air, or intense exercise irritate the airways and trigger an immune system response that leads to inflammation and constriction. Most people who have asthma find relief from acute attacks by using bronchodilators, inhaled or oral drugs that ease inflammation and allow the respiratory tract to expand. In the case of status asthmaticus, however, the airways do not respond to bronchodilators. Swelling and constriction tend to worsen over the course of minutes or hours.

A person who experiences status asthmaticus is likely to suffer from intense chest tightness, shortness of breath, anxiety, and confusion. Coughing or wheezing may occur initially, and as the condition worsens, the lips and skin might turn blue. Without treatment, the lack of oxygen in the lungs and blood can cause dizziness, a loss of motor skills and unconsciousness. A person suffering from status asthmaticus needs to be evaluated at an emergency room as soon as possible to prevent fatal complications.

In the emergency room, doctors can administer oxygen and fluids to keep the patient stable. A doctor usually conducts an arterial blood gas test to assess oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. During the arterial blood gas test, a syringe is used to extract a blood sample from an artery, which is then analyzed by laboratory experts. A doctor may also conduct a chest x-ray to look for signs of pneumonia, obstructions, and other conditions that may complicate treatment.

Initial treatment measures for status asthmaticus involve administering intravenous bronchodilators and oral steroids to help open the airways. An unresponsive patient may be placed on a mechanical ventilator to prevent total lung failure. Once inflammation subsides and the patient can breathe on his or her own, specialists can conduct additional diagnostic tests to check for permanent damage to the respiratory tract.

Most people who receive emergency treatment for status asthmaticus experience full recoveries. Before leaving the hospital, a patient usually meets with a specialist who can determine his or her asthma triggers and suggest ways to better avoid them. A patient is usually prescribed daily oral medications to help manage symptoms and a high-strength bronchodilator inhaler to use if another attack occurs.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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