Asthma is a respiratory condition that afflicts 2.7 million people in the country, or as many as one in every nine Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018). Though such a statistic may be hard to visualise at first, you’ll feel the urgency when you realise that this one person among nine could be one of your family members, friends, co-workers, or neighbours. And though many asthmatics know to always carry their puffers, medication, and a copy of their asthma action plan, it is not entirely impossible to witness them having an asthma attack without any of these three on hand.
This brings us to a discussion of a well-known method for treating breathlessness: the paper bag technique. Health professionals recommend breathing deeply into a paper bag when one is suffering from the onset of hyperventilation, also known as panic attacks. But can the same method be utilised by someone having an asthma attack in the absence of an inhaler?
In this feature, we will tackle all things related to asthma, hyperventilation, and the paper bag technique. We’ll describe how this method varies from breathing into an inhaler, why it shouldn’t be a replacement for an inhaler, and how to do proper first aid for an asthmatic if a puffer isn’t immediately available.
Breathe in, breathe out, and read on for these important guidelines about how to help your loved ones with asthma!
What is the Paper Bag Technique?
The paper bag technique is a method recommended by health professionals in order to assuage hyperventilation. When someone suffers from a panic attack due to excessive stress or overwork, their brain reacts by decreasing their supply of carbon dioxide. This causes symptoms like tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing—symptoms also attributed to asthma.
In the case of a panic attack, breathing into a paper bag proves effective because it increases the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. But for reasons outlined below, the paper bag technique does not have the same efficacy for asthmatics as their trusty inhalers and prescribed medications.
Asthma Attacks vs. Panic Attacks: The Importance of Knowing the Difference
The first key to understanding why the paper bag technique won’t work for an asthmatic is to know the difference between an asthma attack and a panic attack. They are two totally different occurrences despite sharing symptoms, and their treatments are not interchangeable.
Though someone undergoing a panic attack will have difficulty breathing just like an asthmatic, the problem lies in their lack of carbon dioxide, and not in the obstruction of their airways. In contrast, an asthmatic will cough, wheeze, and breathe in a laboured manner because their airways are inflamed and filled with mucus.
The second key lies in knowing what a paper bag cannot offer asthmatics. A plain paper bag does not serve the same function as an inhaler, which allows the asthmatic to breathe in corticosteroids or cortisone-like medicines. When inhaled, these medicines bring inflammation down in the airways, halt excessive mucus production, and relieve discomfort in the chest.
In order to take control of an emergency related to breathing—whether it’s for asthma or for hyperventilation—one must be aware of slight differences in the symptoms. Perhaps the giveaway symptom that differentiates hyperventilation from asthma is over-breathing. If breathing even a little—let alone over-breathing—proves trouble for the victim, then it’s time to toss the paper bag and initiate first aid for asthma.
Managing Asthma Attacks: Six Preliminary Steps
Awareness of proper first aid methods will go a long way in relieving a victim of an asthma attack. In the absence of the victim’s puffer, medications, and asthma action plan, here are six steps you can take to initiate their recovery.
Learn More about First Aid Treatment for Asthma with Australia Wide First Aid
Asthma is very common in Australia, and anyone you know could suddenly get an asthma attack without being prepared for it. But as a trained first-aider, you can be the one prepared to take charge of the situation. Come sharpen your first aid skills, and learn to tackle more complex challenges such as treating asthma in child care or education settings, with certified training organisation Australia Wide First Aid.
Come and enrol at one of Australia Wide First Aid’s training centres to earn a certificate of first aid completion, whether you are taking the module for the first time or refreshing your knowledge through an Express module. From us, you’ll learn how to respond in cases of asthma, anaphylaxis, or related emergencies. Click on any of the location pages below to commence your training as a bona fide first-aider!
Respiratory-related courses offered by Australia Wide First Aid include:
Paper bags shouldn’t be used by First Aiders in the treatment of Hypoventilation as per Australian Resuscitation Council guideline 9.2.8
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