Asthma attack

What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack can last from a few minutes up to a few days, and implies a sudden deterioration of your asthma symptoms. During the asthma attack the muscles of your respiratory tract contract and the mucous membranes swell at the same time as more mucus is produced. This will often cause breathing difficulties, strong whistling sounds while both inhaling and exhaling, as well as cough with viscous mucus.

Asthma attack symptoms:

  • Very fast breathing
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Tense neck- or chest muscles
  • Speaking difficulties
  • Severe agony
  • Pale and sweaty face
  • Blue lips or nails
  • The problems deteriorate despite of you having taken your medicine

How should I handle an asthma attack?

If you take your preventive asthma medication and are following your doctor's recommendations, the chances are that you will never have to experience a severe asthma attack. But if you or someone in your presence is still affected it is important to stay as calm as possible and not to panic. Use your fast-acting bronchodilating medicine and do not hesitate to ask others for help. Loosen tight clothing and drink water if you are thirsty. If the breathing difficulties do not pass after a while it is time to seek help at Accident and Emergency at your local hospital. If you have an acute asthma attack, call 999.

Is it possible to prevent an asthma attack?

Severe asthma attacks are rarely seen but can quickly get serious and in a worst case scenario can be life threatening. The first signs of an asthma attack start before the well-known symptoms of asthma appear and may not stop you from going through your daily routine. In order to prevent severe attacks it is important that you learn to recognise even mild symptoms.

Early signs of asthma attack:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Repeated cough, especially during the night
  • Abnormal tiredness or weakness in association with exercise
  • Wheezing breath or cough during or after exercise (exercise induced asthma)
  • Mood swings
  • Signs of a cold or allergies (sneezing, runny nose, cough, sore throat, and headache)
  • Sleeping difficulties during the night
  • Lowered PEFR-status

People with allergic asthma might get asthma attacks if exposed to a substance they are not tolerating. It could, for example, be pets, dust mites or hay fever. Asthma attacks may also be triggered by infections and non-allergic substances in the air irritating the airways, like tobacco smoke, exhaust fumes, chemicals and strong smells. The best way to prevent and ease an asthma attack is to avoid the substances you know can trigger your asthma.

Smoking and asthma do not go together and preferably no member of the family should smoke, at least not indoors. Mould and dust mites prosper in damp environments, so make sure to fix all damp damages and ensure that there is good ventilation both in your house and at work. Pet allergies may not mean that you have to avoid all pets it could, for example be possible that you tolerate certain breeds but if you are severely allergic it is probably for the best not to have any pets in your house. If you are allergic to pollen it is a good idea to follow the pollen prognosis and in case of need, increase the preventive medication at the beginning of the pollen season. Exercising regularly and keeping yourself in shape is good for your asthma, but avoid physical exertion if you suffer from an infection.

Learn to recognise your symptoms and talk to your doctor about when and how you should take your fast acting bronchodilators. Your doctor will also be able to help you decide if and when it is time to seek emergency care.

How do I handle my child having an asthma attack?

It is of extra importance to give fast treatment to children with asthma. Babies and small children can have more unclear symptoms than adults, and the attack might be more severe than you think. Try to keep calm during the attack and comfort your child, it may help the child to relax and breathe more easily. Keep your attention on the child and contact a doctor if the problems do not disappear after treatment. 

Learn more about asthma attacks in children.



UK/GEN/15/0055a                 Date of preparation: December 2015


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