How to recognize the signs of a severe asthma attack

13-year-old Broadway star Laurel Griggs died earlier this month (Photo via Instagram)

A 13-year-old Broadway star has died from complications of an asthma attack. 

Laurel Griggs was just six years old when she made her Broadway debut as Polly in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, performing alongside Scarlett Johansson. Since then, she has appeared in more than 1,000 Broadway shows as well as numerous TV shows and commercials, her father, Andrew Griggs, told CNN. She was also on Saturday Night Live in 2017, acting with Pete Davidson and Alex Moffat.

The rising star had had asthma for about two years, her dad said. Earlier this month, her family rushed her to Mount Sinai Hospital because of an asthma attack. Within two hours, Griggs went into cardiac arrest and died. 

“I think everybody did everything they could,” her father said. “It just comes so suddenly.”

On Nov. 8, following her funeral, Broadway theatres dimmed the lights of their marquees in her honour, as is a tradition for Broadway stars who pass away.

What is asthma?

Asthma, a chronic inflammatory disease of the airway, causes shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing, according to Asthma Canada. More than 3.8 million Canadians have asthma.

People are often surprised to hear about asthma attacks resulting in death, says Mehnaz Rahman, Asthma Canada’s manager of communications and public affairs.

“Asthma is a largely misunderstood disease, and many people don’t realize that asthma can be a fatal disease,” Rahman tells Yahoo Canada. “The truth is, in Canada, four families lose a loved one to asthma every week.”

Why do asthma attacks occur?

An asthma attack occurs because of bronchoconstriction, the term used to describe the tightening of muscles surrounding the airways, making them too narrow to breathe effectively. 

An attack can build up slowly, over hours, days, or weeks, Rahman explains, or it can happen suddenly “if your asthma is not under control and you are exposed to one of your triggers.”

Leading to inflammation in the airways, triggers can include dust mites, moulds, pollens, viral infections, air pollutants, chemical fumes, strong-smelling substances like perfumes, smoke, cold air, and certain food additives such as sulfites. Exercise and intense emotions can also be triggers. 

How do you recognize a severe asthma attack, and what do you do?

“It’s very important to be able to recognize the signs of a life-threatening asthma attack,” Rahman says. These include difficult or fast breathing; lips or nails turning blue; skin on the neck pulled tight with each breath, a common symptom in young children; and anxiety, confusion or fear.

Someone having an attack should immediately administer a reliever medication, which is usually a blue-coloured inhaler (though not always), and keep using it every five to 15 minutes until accessing emergency medical assistance. They should also sit upright and stay calm. 

Bystanders should call 911, help the individual sit upright, help them stay calm by reassuring them, and get in touch with their emergency contact person.

The most effective way to prevent asthma attacks is to ensure that asthma is under control, Rahman notes. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of people with asthma tend to normalize the symptoms of uncontrolled asthma as a part of living with asthma,” she explains. “They don’t realize that they are experiencing symptoms because their asthma is uncontrolled, not because they have asthma. It’s very important to learn about these symptoms and to bring them to the attention of a healthcare provider.

“It’s also very important to take controller medications as prescribed, even when asymptomatic,” Rahman says. “Another important step is to have a written asthma action plan from your healthcare provider so you are able to recognize when your asthma is getting worse and know what to do at each step.”

Asthma Canada has an asthma action-plan template for free download on its website and a free HelpLine staffed by certified respiratory educators (1-866-787-4050 or info@asthma.ca).

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