An Overview of Bronchospasm

A potentially life-threatening airway constriction

Bronchospasms occur when your airways constrict, or narrow, causing you to have difficulty breathing. Bronchospasms can have a number of different causes, but some of the most common are asthma, allergies, and environmental irritants. They are often managed with an inhaled medication called a bronchodilator.

Bronchospasms make your chest feel tight and are usually accompanied by coughing. If your airways constrict too much, you will be unable to breathe in deep enough and will face a medical emergency from oxygen levels being too low.

What Are Bronchospasms?

Bronchospasms are part of why it can be hard to breathe when you're having an asthma attack or an allergic reaction. They happen when the muscles in your airways tighten. This is what causes your airways to narrow.

If you've ever been in a home with old water pipes, you can hear a high-pitched noise as water flows through them. This high-pitched noise is caused by narrow pipes. Like narrow water pipes, when your airways constrict during a bronchospasm, you will hear a whistling noise when you breathe, known as a wheeze.


In order to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, your body uses three mechanisms:

  • Ventilation: The mechanical act of breathing in and out, which brings oxygen into the lungs and carbon dioxide out of the lungs.
  • Diffusion: The function of carbon dioxide and oxygen being exchanged at the alveoli (functional part of the lung exchange process) and pulmonary capillaries.
  • Perfusion: Pumping the blood throughout your body with fresh oxygen.

Bronchospasm interferes with these mechanisms, preventing your respiratory system from working properly.

bronchospasm symptoms

Verywell / JR Bee

Symptoms of Bronchospasm

Experiencing symptoms of bronchospasm can be very stressful and frightening, as you will feel like you are not getting enough air. For this reason, you will usually need to seek emergency medical attention.

Common symptoms that may be associated with bronchospasms include:

Fatigue and exhaustion are other less-common and more subtle symptoms that may be associated with bronchospasm. Because these symptoms can be frightening, it is good to have a clear medical plan for prevention and treatment if you have any of these symptoms.

What Causes Bronchospasm?

There are many potential causes of bronchospasm. Asthma is a major contributor and risk factor for you to develop bronchospasm. However, just because you have asthma does not mean that you will develop bronchospasms.

Common Causes

If you experience a bronchospasm during surgery, your anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist will be properly trained to manage your airway. You may require additional monitoring during the post-operation period if you had a bronchospasm during your surgery.


Under most circumstances, the diagnosis of bronchospasm will be determined by medical examination. When you are being seen by a medical professional, they will put a pulse oximeter on your finger to estimate the saturation of your blood cells with oxygen on your finger (although it could be a toe or taped to your forehead). Unless you have another underlying disease that restricts oxygen transfer in your lungs, your pulse oximeter reading should be greater than 90%.

If they are unable to get adequate readings, they can directly check your oxygen amount in your arteries by drawing blood from an artery in your wrist, which is known as an arterial blood gas test. The wrist is a sensitive area and will sting a little when being drawn from. Because the blood is being drawn from an artery, which has high pressure, they will apply pressure with gauze and apply a pressure dressing until the artery has time to heal.

If your healthcare provider is concerned about other causes of wheezing or shortness of breath, you may get an X-ray. Other, more extensive testing is typically not required during an acute episode of bronchospasm. However, you may be referred to a pulmonologist for further evaluations including a CT scan, pulmonary function testing, or exercise testing to further identify the cause of your bronchospasms or symptoms.

Future episodes of bronchospasm may not require much in the way of testing other than monitoring your oxygen levels to ensure your safety.


Treatment of bronchospasm usually starts with bronchodilators. These are inhaled medications that help open up your airways. The most commonly used bronchodilators are short-acting beta2-agonists such as Ventolin or Proventil (albuterol).

If you have high blood pressure and are on beta-blockers like Lopressor (metoprolol), or Inderal (propanolol), you will want to let your healthcare provider know, as it will block some of the effects of albuterol. You should also have a rescue-inhaler to help delay emergencies, giving you time to seek medical attention if you have a repeat episode of bronchospasm.

If you have underlying asthma, you will also likely be given prednisone orally or methylprednisolone if an IV is required to help reduce any inflammation involved in narrowing your airways. Your healthcare provider will also likely provide you with a prednisone taper over several days to help reduce your risk for a recurrence.

If you are suffering from hypoxia and you are unable to maintain your oxygen levels (even with supplemental oxygen) due to severe constriction of your airways, you can have a breathing tube placed (known as intubation) to protect your airway and maintain appropriate oxygen levels.


Experiencing a bronchospasm can be very scary for you. The number one thing you can do to cope with having bronchospasms is to reduce their occurrence.

Working closely with your pulmonologist, and sometimes an otolaryngologist, you will be able to develop a plan of care that reduces your risk for having repeat bronchospasms. If you have environmental risk factors, such as smoking, allergies, or fragrances that are shown to exacerbate bronchospasms, then eliminating these substances from around you will be key to reducing your risk.

If you suffer from bronchospasms due to asthma, being adequately treated with both long-term and short-term inhalers or nebulizers will help you to avoid subsequent bronchospasms.

Alternative Therapies

There are several groups that suggest that using breathing retraining techniques can be useful in reducing bronchospasms. One technique, in particular, has had successful results in three out of four studies.

The Buteyko breathing technique was founded by Russian physician Konstantine Buteyko. He proposed that in asthmatics, worsening shortness of breath was caused by hyperventilation. His technique is thought to cause hypoventilation, which increases your carbon dioxide levels in your blood, which may have a bronchodilation effect to help minimize your shortness of breath.

Buteyko Technique

The Buteyko breathing retraining exercise consists of the following steps:

  1. Several shallow breaths (through the nose) for 10 seconds.
  2. Exhale all air after the 10 seconds is up.
  3. Pinch your nose to prevent inhaling for 3 to 5 seconds (or until you feel the first feelings of being air hungry).
  4. Repeat for several minutes on a daily basis.

It is reported that using the Buteyko breathing retraining exercises can reduce your need for albuterol. People involved in these studies also reported an improvement in their quality of life in relation to asthma. There are several other techniques, such as the Papworth breathing technique and Pink City Lung Exerciser. However, these are not as well studied as the Buteyko method.

Yoga and acupuncture are two other alternative therapies that have limited information related to their efficacy in bronchospasm, though it is believed by some to help reduce symptoms related to asthma. If you are a practitioner of yoga, you may notice that pranayama yoga breathing techniques are fairly similar to the Buteyko breathing retraining and you may receive similar benefits.

Many different herbs and oils are thought to have bronchodilatory effects. However, there is limited research showing the long-term effects of eating or inhaling these. While there are many small studies that look at herbal and oil use for a variety of ailments, they are not sufficiently studied to make any recommendations.

You should not use herbs and/or oils as alternative therapy without consulting with your healthcare provider first.

A Word From Verywell

You may not always know that you are susceptible to having bronchospasms before your first one. Seek emergency help if you are having shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Following your first incidence, it is important to develop a plan of care with your healthcare provider to help reduce your risks of having subsequent episodes of bronchospasm. You may find that alternative therapies such as breathing retraining or yoga may add supplemental help in controlling your symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is paradoxical bronchospasm?

    Paradoxical bronchospasm is when a person's airways constrict instead of relax after using a bronchodilator. This is a type of medication that relaxes muscles surrounding the airways to make breathing easier. It's called "paradoxical" because the treatment worsens symptoms rather than relieving them.

  • What's the difference between bronchospasm and laryngospasm?

    Bronchospasm and laryngospasm can both make it hard for you to speak or breathe. While bronchospasm happens when your airways narrow, laryngospasm happens when the muscles in your vocal cords contract. Laryngospasms are uncommon and usually only last for a minute or so. 

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Agarwal D, Gupta PP, Sood S. Assessment for Efficacy of Additional Breathing Exercises Over Improvement in Health Impairment Due to Asthma Assessed using St. George's Respiratory Questionnaire. Int J Yoga. 2017;10(3):145-151. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.213472

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  9. National Health Service (NHS). Bronchodilators.

Additional Reading
  • Fitzgerald MA. Managing Bronchospasm with Short-Acting Beta2-Agonists. Nurse Pract. 2006 Sep; 31(9):47-53.

  • Hall C, Nici L, Sood S, ZuWallack R & Castro M. Nonpharmacologic Therapy for Severe Persistent Asthma. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract 2017 Jul - Aug; 5(4):928-935. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaip.2017.04.030.

  • Kodadek LM & Lipsett PA. Respiratory Complications. In Sidawy, AN & Perlor BA, Rutherford's Vascular Surgery and Endovascular Therapy, 9th. ed. Elsevier, Philadephia:PA. 2019.

  • Patient Education: Bronchospasm, Adult. Clinical Key website.

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.