Asthma Alert: Why Taking Deep Breaths Could Be Making It Worse

If you or someone you know suffers from asthma, chances are you believe that taking deep breaths is the best way to relieve an asthma attack. Turns out, that advice is wrong and could actually worsen the problem. Research at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas shows that shallow breaths combined with biofeedback are key to improving long-term lung health.

The Problem with Deep Breaths

When an asthma attack occurs, most people instinctively gulp air and try to take deep breaths. This reaction is understandable given the overwhelming feeling of being suffocated. However, this effort to take in more oxygen often exacerbates the situation.

According to researcher Thomas Ritz, hyperventilation, which involves deep, rapid breathing, causes a drop in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood. This can leave a person feeling dizzy and short of breath. By increasing CO2 levels with the help of biofeedback, asthma patients can reduce their symptoms.

It may seem counterintuitive, but taking in too much oxygen can actually increase the sensation of breathlessness. Researcher Alicia E. Meuret explains, “When people hyperventilate, there is something very strange happening. In essence, they are taking in too much air. But the sensation that they get is shortness of breath, choking, air hunger, as if they’re not getting enough air. It’s almost like a biological system error.”

The imbalance between carbon dioxide and oxygen is the reason that taking deep breaths is the opposite of what someone suffering an asthmatic attack should attempt to do. Meuret adds, “They don’t need any more oxygen. But consciously or not, people start to take deeper breaths — and that makes the symptoms worse.”

Shallow Breaths and Biofeedback to the Rescue

In the study conducted by SMU researchers, a month-long biofeedback program proved effective for 120 asthma patients who were trained to take shallower breaths. As a result, these patients experienced eased asthma symptoms, better lung function, less sensitive airways, and overall improved breathing.

However, it’s worth noting that the program can be initially challenging for people with asthma. Meuret explains, “It’s actually very, very, very unrelaxing when patients start.”

When a person with asthma already has low CO2 levels in their blood, learning to breathe in a shallow manner slowly to raise CO2 levels — even just a small amount — can trigger intense air hunger. Overcoming this hurdle requires patients to understand that the symptoms are caused by low CO2 and not low oxygen so they can continue with the exercise.

Meuret says, “And that’s even more difficult for asthmatics than anxious patients who have a normal lung function.” Despite the initial challenges, the researchers believe that the shallow breathing program offers the best hope for relief.

Managing Asthma Better

Another aspect to better manage asthma is understanding common triggers that can exacerbate the problem, some of which can include:

  • Allergens such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and mold.
  • Viral and bacterial infections such as colds and sinus infections.
  • Air pollution, cigarette smoke, and strong odors from cleaning products or fragrances.
  • Weather changes, including fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
  • Strong emotions such as stress, anxiety, and sadness that can lead to rapid breathing and hyperventilation.
  • Exercise-induced asthma, which occurs during or after physical exertion.

Being mindful of these triggers and working with a healthcare professional can help create an asthma management plan that can reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. By taking preventive measures and learning how to breathe shallowly during an attack, asthma sufferers can better manage their condition and improve their quality of life.

Final Thoughts

Current medical advice surrounding asthma and deep breaths has misled countless individuals, potentially worsening their symptoms. Fortunately, the researchers at SMU have highlighted the importance of shallow breaths combined with biofeedback in maintaining long-term lung health. By changing the way we think about the breathing techniques used to mitigate asthma attacks, individuals suffering from asthma can find relief and live healthier lives.