Asthma is a respiratory condition that afflicts 2.7 million people in Australia — this amounts to around one in every 9 Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018).
One person in 9 could mean one of your family members, friends, co-workers, or neighbours… And while many asthmatics are used to carrying their puffers, medication, and a copy of their asthma action plan, there’s always the possibility you’ll witness an asthma attack where none of these 3 items are on hand.
Let’s take a closer look at asthma, hyperventilation, and the paper bag technique, a well-known method for treating breathlessness.
Deep-breathing into a paper bag is recommended by health professionals, to counter the effects of hyperventilation from panic attacks. But could we use this paper bag technique for an asthma attack when an inhaler is not available?
Take a breath now while we explain the important differences between breathing into a paper bag and breathing into an inhaler, and what first aid you should really do for an asthmatic when a puffer’s not available.
Breathing into a paper bag will increase levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.
Hyperventilating — breathing at an abnormally rapid rate — does just the opposite, decreasing carbon dioxide in the blood. So too, panic attacks. Along with the decrease to the body’s supply of carbon dioxide, panic attacks often cause tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing. These are symptoms not unlike asthma.
In both the cases just described, health professionals recommend the paper bag technique to offset the loss of carbon dioxide in the blood and provide relief for the symptoms.
For asthmatics, as you’ll soon see, the paper bag technique is no substitute for their inhalers and prescribed medications.
Despite sharing symptoms, an asthma attack and a panic attack are two totally different beasts. Their treatments are not interchangeable.
A person experiencing a panic attack may have difficulty breathing, but unlike an asthmatic, their airways are not being obstructed. An asthmatic’s airways will be inflamed and filled with mucus, leading to coughing, wheezing, and laboured breathing. The problem for a panic attack victim is the lack of carbon dioxide.
You can certainly inhale a greater proportion of carbon dioxide by deep-breathing into a paper bag. An asthmatic’s inhaler, on the other hand, is the delivery system for corticosteroids. Breathing in these cortisone-like medicines has the effect of relieving discomfort in the chest by reducing inflammation in the airways and arresting excess mucus production.
Panic attacks and hyperventilation are occasions where breathing too much, too quickly, is the problem. With asthma, struggling to breathe, even a little, is the issue. If this is the case, forget the paper bag and go straight to first aid for asthma.
Here are 6 steps you can take to initiate recovery for a victim of an asthma attack in the absence of puffers, medications, and asthma action plans.
Asthma is common in Australia. You could easily find yourself dealing with an asthma attack. Being prepared to take charge of the situation as a trained first-aider, could save someone’s life.
Learn how to respond in cases of asthma, anaphylaxis, or related emergencies, with Australia Wide First Aid. Among the first aid skills at our certified training organisation, you can learn to treat asthma in childcare or education settings.
Click on any of the links below to commence your training as a bona fide first-aider!
Respiratory-related courses provided by Australia Wide First Aid include:
Paper bags should not be used by First Aiders in the treatment of Hyperventilation as per Australian Resuscitation Council guideline 9.2.8
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