The Recovery phases of a severe asthma exacerbation

Suffice it to say, I wasn’t exactly a happy camper when I wrote that last post about my little prison stint. I apologize for that. At the time, I was roided out of my mind and was still very sick. Dr W helped me get through this awful time by reassuring me that what anguish I was experiencing was a normal response after suffering such a severe flare up, and that my complaints were not really unique.

But what a difference a few extra days can make. I think it was Thursday that I finally turned the proverbial corner. As happens so many times when I think I’ll never recover from a severe attack, I just woke up one morning and all of sudden…Wham! I was breathing better and feeling better. It’s as if whatever was causing my lungs to act up in the first place, just burned itself out and left my body.

It’s astonishing how fast the transformation can happen too. One minute you’re feeling crappy, the next you’re feeling fine. This probably sounds strange, but for a while there it actually felt kinda weird to be breathing easy. All day yesterday I caught myself conscientiously trying to analyze my own breathing to see if indeed I was breathing normal…or I was imagining it. No wheeze, no difficulty exhaling, no discomfort…just normal breathing! So weird, but so appreciated. Id give anything to be able to breath like this all the time. Healthy people take their breathing for granted.

So with this most recent revelation, and after having survived literally dozens of these types of exacerbations, I put all my observations together and made a list. So far, Ive been able to identify 6 distinct phases that I go through during the recovery phase of a severe asthma exacerbation that required a hospital admission.

Just for fun I call it ” The Recovery phases of a severe asthma exacerbation” . The word hospitalization is important here, because the recovery phase from a severe exacerbation that did not require hospitalization, doesn’t seem to follow the same pattern.

Here’s the list in the order of occurrence. Can anyone else relate or add to this?

1)The Honeymoon phase: This is usually the period immediately following discharge from the hospital and usually lasts 24-36 hours. During this period you’re basically in a daze trying to adjust to familiar surroundings again. You’re breathing remarkably well and it seems like you’re getting better.
2)The Rebound phase: This phase usually starts on the 2nd or 3rd day out of the hospital and is characterized by a general worsening of all asthma symptoms. (So much for feeling better..huh). Now all of a sudden you actually feel like you are re-flaring and might need to go back into the hospital ( many do end up going back in). I think this phase is brought on primarily by the body trying to adjust to the lower levels of circulating systemic steroids (steroid withdrawals), and by other drugs and treatments that your body was used to getting while in the hospital.( ie cont or frequent nebs, bipap, oxygen etc.) There’s also the possibility that you were discharged from the hospital too soon.
3)The Zombie phase: Most of us know this phase well. Sleep deprived,unable to breath and body physically and mentally mangled, the steroids make you temporarily insane. Feelings of despair, guilt, blame and depression rear their ugly heads.
You’re riding an emotional roller coaster. You can’t turn your brain off. You’re body is rebelling too; You feel bloated, your muscles are cramping and you want to eat everything in sight. The intensity of these symptoms are usually steroid dose dependent and can last from a couple of days to a couple of weeks.
4)The Turning the corner phase: This phase mercifully begins usually around the 7-10th day out of the hospital, and can occur subtly without your awareness, or if you’re lucky, can happen with an abrupt onset, literally overnight. In either case, this is a welcome phase that signals you are finally getting better.
5)The Fatigue phase: Pretty self explanatory. You’re body is exhausted from working so hard, and now that you’re breathing easier and have less steroids in your system, you feel weak and sleepy. You’re coming down hard from a not so pleasant high.
6)The Amnesia phase: I’m not sure this happens to everyone, but certainly if you’ve been hospitalized multiple times, you’ve experienced this phenomena. This phase usually begins 1-2 weeks after the “Turning the corner”phase, or about 5-6 weeks after the initial exacerbation began. All of a sudden, it’s as if you were never sick, never hospitalized and never went through the living hell of a severe asthma exacerbation or recovery. I think it’s the brains way of blanking out the bad stuff, so that you can cope better with future attacks.

So that’s my asthma recovery theory/ check list. I think every physician and/or RT or Nurse who takes care of severe asthmatic patients should familiarize themselves with this list to get a better insight as to what we actually go through AFTER we get out of the hospital.

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25 Comments

  1. Penny says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve not been hospitalised with my asthma, but I’ve just had an intensive course of predisnolone after an exacerbation caused by the flu, and I’m really struggling with my breathing still, so your description of phase 2 hits the nail on the head. It’s reassuring to know it’s not just me that regularly goes downhill on finishing a course of treatment, and I definitely read through the rest of your points thinking, “yep… yep… yep…”
    Think it’s going to have to be another trip to the doctor for me cos I feel like crap :-(

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Penny, Sorry to hear that you’re not breathing well. Please don’t wait too long . If you’re breathing gets worse you should go in for treatment.

      Judging from your use of the word prednisolone, you’re from the UK?

  2. Jeanne says:

    Thank you so much, Stephen. Am home after a few days in the hospital with the worst exacerbation I’ve ever had. Am so totally wiped and it’s making me crazy. This post assures me greatly!

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Most frequently asked question

"Can you have an asthma attack with a normal sat reading"?
The answer is..YES!
While it's a little unusual to see a person with a perfect O2 sat of a 100% during a severe exacerbation, its pretty typical to see sats in the 94-97% range. The reason for this, is that asthma is a disease of the airways , not the alveoli where gas exchange takes place. Most asthmatics dont desaturate during the early stages of an attack,unless theres a secondary problem such as pneumonia. You have to be extremely ill with asthma if your sats are low.

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