Bronchospasms happen when the muscles that line your bronchi (airways in your lungs) tighten. This results in wheezing, coughing, and other symptoms. Many things can cause bronchospasm, including asthma, and it’s usually managed with bronchodilators. If you’re having bronchospasm symptoms, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
The airways that connect your windpipe to your lungs are called bronchi. Sometimes the muscles that line your bronchi tighten and cause your airways to narrow. This is called a bronchospasm, and it limits the amount of oxygen your body receives.
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Bronchospasm can be scary because it feels like you can’t get enough air. If you’ve never had a bronchospasm before, your first experience can be especially terrifying. If you develop sudden or severe symptoms of bronchospasm, such as chest pain or difficulty catching your breath, or wheezing, you should go to your nearest emergency room for treatment.
Bronchospasms can happen to anyone, but they’re most common in people with allergies, asthma and other lung conditions. Additionally, young children and adults over the age of 65 are more likely to develop bronchospasms.
Bronchospasm is quite common. It’s associated with many different conditions, including asthma, emphysema, COPD and lung infections.
These conditions are all different, but they all affect your breathing.
While bronchospasm affects your bronchi, laryngospasm affects your vocal cords. With laryngospasm, your vocal cords suddenly close up when you take a breath, blocking the flow of air into your lungs. This rare condition can be scary, but it usually goes away on its own within one or two minutes.
Bronchospasm is a symptom of asthma and other medical conditions. People with asthma can get bronchospasm, but not everyone with bronchospasm gets asthma. Both conditions are the result of irritated or inflamed airways.
Bronchospasm symptoms can be frightening and may come on suddenly. People with the condition often feel like they can’t catch their breath. Other bronchospasm symptoms include:
Anytime your airways are irritated or swollen, it can cause bronchospasm. Asthma is the most common cause of bronchospasm, but there are several other things that can result in the condition, including:
Bronchospasm is a symptom of several different conditions. However, just because you have one of the conditions listed above, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll develop bronchospasm.
In very rare instances, bronchodilators commonly used to treat bronchospasm can actually make the condition worse. This is called paradoxical bronchospasm. If this happens, you should stop using your bronchodilator immediately and seek alternative treatment.
Your healthcare provider can diagnose bronchospasm. They’ll perform an examination and ask about your symptoms and medical history. In some cases, your provider may refer you to a pulmonologist (a specialist who treats lung disease).
Your provider may recommend certain assessments to determine how well your lungs are functioning. These tests may include:
Bronchospasm treatment usually starts with bronchodilators. This medication is available in different forms, including inhalers, nebulizer solutions and tablets. In more severe cases, your healthcare provider may recommend steroids to reduce inflammation in your airways.
Short-acting bronchodilators offer quick “rescue relief” for bronchospasm symptoms. These medications can widen your airways in a matter of minutes and the effects last up to six hours. Common short-acting bronchodilators include albuterol and levalbuterol.
Long-acting bronchodilators reduce your risk of bronchospasms in the future. With the exception of formoterol, they aren't useful as rescue inhalers because they don’t offer immediate relief. While the effects take longer to kick in, they last for up to 12 hours. Common long-acting bronchodilators include salmeterol, formoterol and vilanterol.
Other forms of long-acting bronchodilators include anticholinergics which are also available in short-acting (e.g ipratropium) and long-acting forms of inhalers (e.g tiotropium, umeclidinium and aclidinium).
Steroids help reduce inflammation in your airways. These medications are often inhaled. But if your bronchospasm is severe, steroids may be given in pill form or through an IV line (intravenously).
There are no home remedies that can stop a bronchospasm once it’s started. You’ll need a short-acting bronchodilator (such as an inhaler) to ease the symptoms of your attack. If you’ve already been diagnosed with bronchospasm, you probably already have a bronchodilator. But if this is your first episode and you don’t have a bronchodilator, you should go to the nearest emergency room for treatment.
Some experts believe that breathing exercises can reduce your risk of bronchospasm. However, research is ongoing and more evidence is needed in this area. Even so, these exercises can’t stop a bronchospasm once it’s started. If you are prone to bronchospasms, ask your healthcare provider how to best manage them.
You can’t prevent bronchospasm altogether, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk. For example:
If you’ve been diagnosed with bronchospasm, your healthcare provider will probably prescribe a short-acting bronchodilator to use in case of an attack. They may also give you a long-acting bronchodilator to help reduce your risk of bronchospasms in the future.
An episode of bronchospasm usually lasts between seven and 14 days. Your healthcare provider will give you medications to manage your symptoms during this time.
Left untreated, severe bronchospasm can be life-threatening. However, with prompt intervention, symptoms usually subside within minutes. If you develop bronchospasm symptoms, use your bronchodilator immediately. If you don’t have a bronchodilator, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
If you develop bronchospasm symptoms that linger or interfere with your daily activities, contact your healthcare provider. Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room if you:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Bronchospasm is treatable, but having an episode can be a scary experience. If you have asthma, COPD or other respiratory conditions that make you more prone to bronchospasm, talk to your healthcare provider. They’ll prescribe medications that can reduce your risk and ease your symptoms should a bronchospasm occur.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/18/2022.
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