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What Is An Asthma Attack?

Asthmatic woman using her inhaler

An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of your asthma symptoms. The muscles in your airways tighten and it becomes difficult to breathe.

The symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • gasping for breath
  • being too breathless to speak
  • your breathing getting faster
  • a tightening of the chest
  • wheezing and coughing
  • a racing pulse
  • blue lips or fingernails

Most of the time, using your reliever inhaler (blue inhaler) as instructed below will stop your asthma attack. If your inhaler is not helping as much as usual you should contact your GP or asthma clinic. If it is not helping at all, you should call 999 for emergency help or go to A&E as a severe asthma attack can be life-threatening.

Asthma attacks are usually the result of your asthma symptoms getting gradually worse over several days. Needing to use your inhaler more often than normal is a sign that your asthma is not as well controlled as it could be and should not be ignored. If you are experiencing asthma symptoms, it is important to use your reliever inhaler and see a doctor.

For more information, see Common Asthma Symptoms.

What should I do if I have an asthma attack?

  1. Sit down or stand still.
  2. Try and relax and take some slow breaths in through your nose and out of your mouth.
  3. Use your reliever inhaler, taking 10 puffs over the next 10-15 minutes. Do this by taking two puffs every 2-3 minutes, taking each puff slowly and deeply.
  4. Use your Aerochamber or other spacer if you have one.
  5. If your breathing improves, you should still telephone your GP or the Out of Hours service as you will usually be given a short course of steroid tablets to stop your asthma worsening again.
  6. If your breathing does not improve you need to call an ambulance and go to Accident and Emergency as you need further treatment to help your breathing. Repeat Step 3 while waiting for help.

If you are taken to hospital with a severe asthma attack you will probably be given an oxygen mask, nebuliser and steroid tablets to calm the attack. Most people respond well to the treatment and are sent home within a few hours, but you may have to stay longer if your symptoms don’t improve.

What causes an asthma attack?

During an asthma attack the muscles in your airways tighten up, making the airways narrower. The airways also get inflamed and produce more mucus, making them narrower still. Air flows less easily through your airways, leaving you breathless and unable to take in enough air.

Many different things can cause your airways to act in this way - these are known as asthma triggers. Common triggers can include dust, cigarette smoke, animal hair, pollen, colds & flus, and strenuous exercise.

If you have an asthma attack, or have asthma symptoms, you should work with your doctor to find out what triggers your asthma. If you can work out what sets if off, you will find it easier to control your asthma and avoid the symptoms.

For more information, see What is Asthma?

How can I prevent an asthma attack?

Taking your preventer inhaler regularly as prescribed will help to prevent an asthma attack. You should also avoid anything which you know triggers your own asthma symptoms, such as animals, pollen, and dusty or smoky environments.

If you know that you have asthma and want to order your asthma relievers or preventers online, you can visit our asthma clinic. 

Am I at risk of an asthma attack?

If you have been diagnosed with asthma, you are more at risk of an attack if you:

  • smoke
  • miss doses of your preventer inhaler
  • need to use your reliever inhaler more than 3 times a week*
  • are overweight (with a BMI over 30)
  • have a runny or blocked nose even when you don’t have a cold
  • have been admitted to hospital with an asthma attack in the past 5 years

If you think you are at risk of an asthma attack, you should speak to your GP or asthma clinic.

* If you have to use your reliever inhaler more than 3 times a week it might be a sign that your asthma is not well controlled. You should book an appointment with your GP to see if you need to change or adjust your medicines.