A tightened airway can result when the smooth muscular layers of your lungs spasm, swell and constrict your airflow. An episode can be mild and manageable or severe, requiring immediate medical treatment. Tight airways usually are caused by colds, viral infections, allergens or irritants that trigger lung inflammation. Your airway narrows as it swells, reducing the amount of available air. Complications from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, also can constrict your airway.
Symptoms of a tight airway can include shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing. In severe cases, a person suffering from a tight airway might have a bluish tint to his skin or experience confusion, rapid heartbeat or chest pain. Intercostal retractions, which occur when your skin sinks in between your ribs during inward breaths, also can signal a constricted airway.
Physicians often use medication to treat tight airways. Albuterol, the most commonly used medication for this purpose, enters the airway via an inhaler and loosens the airways and increases airflow by relaxing the smooth muscles of the lungs. Albuterol is a type of drug known as a short-acting beta 2 agonist, which provides quick relief and remains effective for several hours.
Ipratropium, another type of inhaler, loosens airways and relaxes lung muscles by regulating your body's inflammatory process. Some inhalers contain both albuterol and ipratropium. Typically, this combination is used to treat patients who do not respond well to a single prescription inhaler. Long-acting versions of both albuterol and ipratropium can treat people suffering from chronic asthma or COPD.
When medications such as albuterol and ipratropium prove unsuccessful, doctors frequently turn to corticosteroids, which can be administered orally or as an inhaler. Corticosteroids mimic hormones that your body produces naturally and work to calm the lung inflammation responsible for tightening airways. Prednisone, cortisone and hydrocortisone are examples of corticosteroids.
Successful management of diseases such as asthma and COPD is highly individualized based on patient needs and should be done under the careful direction of a physician.