Asthma attacks occur when a person with asthma comes into contact with a trigger or allergen.

Triggers can range from pollen and dust mites through to extreme emotions and the weather.

For asthmatics, allergens are perceived by the body's defences as an attack on their system which their body tries to ward off by creating an inflammatory response in the airways.

Asthma attacks don’t always happen as soon as the person comes into contact with their trigger; the response can take several hours or days.

How do you know if you’re having an asthma attack?

An asthma attack is usually indicated by one or more of the following:

  • your reliever inhaler is not helping to reduce your symptoms
  • you are breathless, making it difficult to talk, eat or sleep
  • your asthma symptoms (breathlessness, tight chest, wheezing) are worsening 
  • you are unable to catch your breath and your breathing is getting faster
  • younger asthmatics may complain of stomach ache

What to do during an asthma attack

Follow these steps if you think you are experiencing an asthma attack:

  1. 1. Sit down and try to remain calm. Do not lie down.
  2. 2. Take a puff of your reliever inhaler between every 30-60 seconds for up to a maximum of ten consecutive puffs
  3. 3. If your reliever inhaler is not helping to reduce your symptoms, or you feel concerned at any time, then call an ambulance on 999
  4. 4. Should you wait longer than 10-15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive then you can repeat the use of your reliever inhaler as detailed above.

During your asthma attack if you begin to notice an improvement in your symptoms and you do not require emergency treatment you will still need to make an urgent appointment with your doctor.

This will give your doctor the chance to assess your current medications and inhaler technique to check whether any changes need to be made.

Early warning signs of asthma attack

Asthma attacks can happen completely out of the blue but they can also occur after various early warning signs. If you are aware of these potential signs then you can try to make some changes so that you do not experience a full asthma attack.

An asthma attack can occur at any time, including during the night. Night time asthma symptoms have been found to be an early indication that an asthma attack is likely to occur. Look out for the following signs:

  • Increased use of your reliever inhaler
  • More frequent coughing, especially at night time 
  • Losing your breath more easily than normal
  • Feeling lethargic or weak
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A decrease in your peak flow readings 
  • Changes in your mood; in particular, becoming irritated or easily upset

Do not ignore these warning signs as they can be a strong indication that your asthma is not as well managed as it should be.

Make sure that you are using your medications as outlined by your doctor and follow your personal asthma action plan. Make an urgent appointment to discuss your worsening symptoms with your doctor or asthma nurse.

What to do to prevent an asthma attack

There are steps you can take to help decrease your chances of having an asthma attack. The below points are important for all asthmatics whether your condition is mild, moderate or severe. 

  • Attend regular reviews of your condition with your doctor or asthma nurse
  • Take your medication as it has been prescribed 
  • Check that you are using the correct inhaler technique
  • Maintain a healthy weight 
  • Try and avoid your asthma triggers as much as possible 
  • Do not smoke
  • Get your annual flu vaccination if it is offered to you
  • Track your asthma symptoms and keep a diary if you find it helpful
  • Follow your written asthma action plan

An asthma attack can be an extremely scary situation for anyone. If you don’t take the correct action it can result in complications and even be fatal.

Three deaths are recorded daily as a direct result of an asthma attack. It is therefore extremely important to think about what action you would take should you experience one.

If you use the right type of asthma medication and employ the correct inhaler techniques, then your chances of having an asthma attack are greatly reduced. Most people living with asthma can enjoy a healthy and normal life.

Page last reviewed:  18/07/2018