What is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack is when your asthma symptoms become worse than usual, and you feel like it’s hard to breathe. Asthma attacks can happen suddenly or the symptoms can gradually build up. It’s important to know how to manage and prevent asthma attacks, as they can be life threatening.


What is an asthma attack?

Asthma is a condition where inflammation causes your airways to narrow, making it difficult to breathe. The treatment for asthma is a preventer inhaler that contains a corticosteroid to bring down the inflammation. You’ll also be given a reliever inhaler, such as Ventolin, to relieve the symptoms of asthma if you feel breathless. Reliever inhalers are usually blue coloured and are also called bronchodilators.

During an asthma attack, the inflammation in your airways is more severe, normally due to asthma triggers. Your reliever inhaler can help during an asthma attack. But if your reliever inhaler does not improve your symptoms, this is a sign that you need emergency medical attention.

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What causes an asthma attack?

An asthma attack can be caused by several different triggers, and what causes an asthma attack for you might be different from someone else.

Some common triggers of an asthma attack are:

  • pollen (from grass, trees or flowers)
  • dust mites
  • respiratory infections (in your airways or lungs)
  • mould
  • smoke from cigarettes, car exhausts or industrial fumes
  • stress
  • cold air
  • chemicals you might inhale, for example from cleaning products
  • animal fur, from pets like dogs or cats
  • strong scents from perfumes, air spray or scented candles
  • other substances you might be allergic to, called allergens, if you have allergic asthma

It can be useful to keep a diary of triggers that might make your asthma worse. This way you may be able to identify a cause and avoid being around it.

Triggers can lead to a build up of inflammation in your airways, leading the airways to become narrower and cause an asthma attack where you find it hard to breathe.

Early signs of an asthma attack

It’s important to notice the early warning signs of an asthma attack. By recognising the signs early, you can get appropriate help quickly and avoid complications.

The most recognisable symptoms of an asthma attack are feeling breathless, having a tight chest, wheezing or coughing a lot.

Some more early signs of an asthma attack are:

  • your reliever inhaler does not help with symptoms
  • your peak flow meter score is consistently lower than usual
  • you feel out of breath easily or it feels like you cannot catch your breath
  • breathlessness that makes it difficult to speak, eat or sleep

Young children may complain of an aching chest or a stomach ache if they have an asthma attack.

Asthma attacks do not always happen suddenly. They can happen gradually over several hours or even days. That’s why it’s important to know the additional signs of an asthma attack so you can get help as soon as possible.

Emergency signs of a severe asthma attack

If you or someone else has any of these symptoms, they could be the emergency signs of an asthma attack. You should contact 999 immediately if you or they have:

  • severe shortness of breath including chest tightness, coughing, wheezing or gasping for air
  • difficulty talking or walking due to shortness of breath
  • pale or blue lips or fingernails
  • no relief of symptoms when using a reliever inhaler

If you are having an asthma attack, you should use your reliever inhaler. Take 10 puffs of your reliever inhaler, leaving a 30 to 60 second gap in between puffs.

If your reliever inhaler is not helping your symptoms after 10 puffs or you feel more unwell, contact 999 immediately. You should do this even if you do not have other emergency symptoms. You can repeat the 10 puffs again after 10 minutes if your symptoms have not got better and the ambulance has not arrived.

You should contact 999 if you are having an asthma attack and do not have your reliever inhaler.

If you are on maintenance and reliever therapy (MART), you’ll usually have one combination inhaler. This inhaler contains both a reliever and a preventer. If you are on MART treatment, speak to your doctor or nurse. They’ll explain what you should do if you have an asthma attack.

What happens if an asthma attack goes untreated?

An untreated asthma attack can be life threatening or lead to serious complications. So if you cannot treat an asthma attack there and then, you must call an ambulance by dialling 999.

During an asthma attack, your airways become inflamed and swollen and often produce a lot of mucus. Your chest muscles will also contract, causing your chest to feel tight or painful. All these processes make it difficult to breathe, which means your body is not getting enough oxygen.

If left untreated, an asthma attack can damage your lungs and lead to difficulties in your everyday activities. Reduced lung function can impact your quality of life, as your ability to breathe normally will be affected. This means you might get tired more easily, or get ill more often.

Preventing asthma attacks

You can prevent asthma attacks by keeping on top of asthma treatment and being aware of your symptoms and triggers.

Make sure that you:

  • attend regular asthma reviews with your doctor or asthma nurse, usually once a year
  • check you are using your inhaler properly with your nurse or pharmacist
  • follow your asthma action plan that your nurse or doctor discusses at your review
  • take your medications as prescribed
  • avoid triggers of your asthma where you can

It’s also a good idea to keep your friends and family aware of the signs and symptoms of an asthma attack. That way they can make it easier for you to get help.

Article created: 26 Apr 2022

Last reviewed: 26 Apr 2022

(Reviews are for ZAVA UK)

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