An asthma attack can progress from manageable to deadly without immediate and effective treatments

By Julie Mazziotta
November 12, 2019 01:50 PM

Broadway star Laurel Griggs’s tragic death at 13 years old was the result of a “massive” asthma attack, her grandfather shared on Sunday, five days after she passed away.

Griggs’s grandfather, David B. Rivlin, said that she was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where doctors were “valiant in trying to save her.”

Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children, and attacks can quickly move from manageable to deadly without immediate treatment or effective medication. And sometimes, sadly, people can die even with medical intervention, says Dr. Afif El-Hasan, a national spokesperson for the American Lung Association and a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California. But the first goal for people with asthma is prevention.

Asthma attacks are typically spurred on by environmental factors, El-Hasan tells PEOPLE.

“It’s usually exercise, an infection like a cold or an allergy to something that are the main triggers,” he says.

People with asthma should regularly check in with their doctor to keep track of their triggers and create a treatment plan.

“We have two groups of medicines that we use for asthma. We have the preventative medicines and we have the medication we give once a person starts wheezing, and everyone needs to make sure they have both available if necessary,” he says. “If someone is having an asthma attack, they need their inhaler and their medication to stop that attack.”

Laurel Griggs/Instagram

If they aren’t able to control an attack with an inhaler and medication, it could turn into a severe, potentially deadly case.

“Any mild asthma attack could progress into something else, and sometimes it can do it very quickly. You just don’t know. Any time someone wheezes they have to watch out and make sure it’s not headed in the wrong direction,” El-Hasan says. “Most of the time it’s controllable, but people need to keep an eye out or aware of the potential of it getting worse.”

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The problem, El-Hasan says, is that people sometimes don’t recognize the severity of their attack. He says that may have been the case with Griggs.

“We don’t know if she’d been wheezing for days, or if something suddenly triggered it,” he says. “She’s 13 years old, and with my 13-year-old patients, they sometimes don’t tell their parents when something’s going on. It’s hard to tell what could have happened, if something triggered it in the middle of the night or if it was just a progression that she couldn’t handle with an inhaler.”

Laurel Griggs
Laurel Griggs/Instagram

The important thing to do, as Griggs and her family did, is head to the hospital. There, doctors can “try to get it under control with medications and steroids,” El-Hasan says.

“Steroids are basically calming down the inflammation in the body that is causing the asthma attack, and helping to relax the lung muscles and stop the part of the immune system that’s gone out of control. Because that’s what an asthma attack is — it’s our immune system overreacting, which is causing the passageways in the lungs to constrict and causing increased secretion in the lung passageways,” he says.

Unfortunately, that does not always work.

“Sometimes the attack is so severe that whatever we try to use isn’t enough,” he says. “The lung passages can constrict so much, and secrete liquid, that the person doesn’t get enough oxygen and they basically suffocate.”

That is the worst-case scenario, and it’s thankfully rare. To prevent deaths from happening, El-Hasan says patients should form an “asthma action plan” with their doctor to identify the best medications. He also wants parents to understand the signs, especially in babies and teens who are less likely to speak up if something is wrong.

“Teenagers can be difficult sometimes because they don’t like to tell their parents things,” he says. “They have to tell their parents if they’re short of breath or if the medications aren’t working, because it can be life-threatening. They can’t assume that it will go away if they’re in trouble.”