Asthma attacks

Asthma attacks kill 3 people in the UK each day. But many of these deaths could be avoided.

Every 10 seconds someone has a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. Find out what your risk of having an attack is using Asthma UK's asthma attack risk checker.

If you're on the right asthma treatment, your chance of having an attack is greatly reduced. Visit your doctor or asthma nurse at least once a year for a check-up and to discuss your treatment.

Symptoms of an asthma attack

Signs that you may be having an asthma attack include:

  • your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheezing or tight chest)
  • your reliever inhaler (usually blue) isn't helping
  • you're too breathless to speak, eat or sleep
  • your breathing is getting faster and it feels like you can't catch your breath
  • your peak flow score is lower than normal
  • children may also complain of a tummy or chest ache

The symptoms won't necessarily occur suddenly. In fact, they often come on slowly over a few hours or days.

What to do if you have an asthma attack

If you think you're having an asthma attack, you should:

  1. Sit upright (don't lie down) and try to take slow, steady breaths. Try to remain calm, as panicking will make things worse.
  2. Take 1 puff of your reliever inhaler (usually blue) every 30 to 60 seconds, up to a maximum of 10 puffs.
  3. Call 999 for an ambulance if you don't have your inhaler with you, you feel worse despite using your inhaler, you don't feel better after taking 10 puffs or you're worried at any point.
  4. If the ambulance hasn't arrived within 15 minutes, repeat step 2.

Never be frightened of calling for help in an emergency.

Try to take the details of your medicines (or your personal asthma action plan) with you to hospital if possible.

If your symptoms improve and you don't need to call 999, get an urgent same-day appointment to see your GP or asthma nurse.

This advice is not for people on SMART or MART treatment. If this applies to you, ask your GP or asthma nurse what to do if you have an asthma attack.

After an asthma attack

You should see your GP or asthma nurse within 48 hours of leaving hospital, or ideally on the same day if you didn't need hospital treatment.

About 1 in 6 people treated in hospital for an asthma attack need hospital care again within 2 weeks, so it's important to discuss how you can reduce your risk of future attacks.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about any changes that may need to be made to manage your condition safely.

For example, the dose of your treatment may need to be adjusted or you may need to be shown how to use your inhaler correctly.

Preventing asthma attacks

The following steps can help you reduce your risk of having an asthma attack:

  • follow your personal asthma action plan and take all of your medicines as prescribed
  • have regular asthma reviews with your GP or asthma nurse – these should be done at least once a year
  • check with your GP or asthma nurse that you're using your inhaler correctly
  • avoid things that trigger your symptoms whenever possible

Don't ignore your symptoms if they're getting worse or you need to use your reliever inhaler more often than usual.

Follow your action plan and make an urgent appointment to see your GP or asthma nurse if your symptoms continue to get worse.

Advice for friends and family

It's important that your friends and family know how to help in an emergency.

It can be useful to make copies of your personal asthma action plan and share it with others who may need to know what to do when you have an attack.

You can photocopy your existing plan, or you could download a blank personal asthma action plan (PDF, 681kb) from Asthma UK and fill it in for anyone who might need a copy.

Alternatively, you could take a photo of your action plan on your phone, so you can show or send it to others easily.

Page last reviewed: 19/02/2018
Next review due: 19/02/2021