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What to do During an Asthma Attack

Thursday 11 February 2021
4 minute(s) read
Dr..Nick Ho

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Nick Ho, MD

on 8 March 2021

Table of Contents

I. What is an Asthma Attack?

II. What Causes an Asthma Attack?

III. Things to do During an Asthma Attack

IV. Living with Asthma

Asthma is an inflammatory lung disease that restricts the airways and makes breathing difficult during certain activities. Roughly 25 million Americans have asthma. It is the most common chronic condition among children in the United States. [1] The small air passages in your lungs that deliver oxygen to your bloodstream are lined with mucus. Asthma occurs when too much mucus fills the airways and not enough air can pass through, resulting in chest tightness and shortness of breath. 

The symptoms of asthma include shortness of breath, coughing, anxiety, and fatigue. Because asthma is such a common condition, there are many drugs like Singulair (montelukast), Symbicort Inhaler (budesonide/formoterol), and Ventolin Inhaler (salbutamol) available to treat its symptoms. Read on to learn about asthma symptoms and what to do during an asthma attack. 

What is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack is when your asthma symptoms worsen quickly within a short time. During an asthma attack, you may experience:

  • Hyperventilation
  • Shortness of breath
  • An increased heart rate
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Agitation

a woman with her hand on her chest

When your asthma symptoms are exacerbated quickly, panic may set in as you struggle to breathe. Asthma attacks sometimes cease on their own. Without medication, however, exacerbations can continue and progressively reduce your ability to breathe. If this happens, you may require emergency medical assistance. Because asthma attacks can be life-threatening, people with asthma should work with their doctor to prepare for these events. [1]

What Causes an Asthma Attack? 

It is still unclear what causes asthma, but people with asthma can usually narrow down the factors that trigger an attack. Commonly, people with asthma are prone to an attack during exercise that exerts lung power. Other known factors include:

  • Smoking or being around smoke
  • Sudden changes in weather (heat can irritate airways, and cold weather can dry out the tissues in your lungs)
  • Heartburn
  • Sinusitis
  • Medications
  • Allergies [2] 

Allergies are often a major problem for asthma patients. It is estimated that 80 percent of people who have asthma are allergic to airborne particles like mold, animal dander, weed pollens, grass, or dust mites. In homes that are not kept clean, cockroach droppings can increase the risk of asthma in children by up to four times. [2] Finding out the factors that trigger your asthma attacks can help you anticipate future flare-ups and help you take preventive action. If you are unsure about what you are allergic to, consult an allergist. 

a group of men running a marathon

Things to do During an Asthma Attack

If you are having an asthma attack and have your inhaler, the general recommendation is to take one puff every 30 to 60 seconds, up to a maximum of 10 puffs. Sitting up straight is ideal, as this can help your airways to open up. Staying calm may be helpful so you do not accelerate your heart rate and cause unnecessary panic. If your symptoms continue after 10 puffs, you may require emergency medical care. This is just a general guideline, and you should follow your doctor’s instructions. [3]

If you are experiencing an asthma attack for the first time, or you do not have an inhaler, you may need to rely on other remedies while you wait for help to arrive. It is worth repeating that staying calm is very important. If you panic, your body’s “fight or flight” stress response can make symptoms worse. 

The pursed-lip breathing technique may help you through an asthma attack. This technique’s goal is to reduce the frequency of breaths so the airways may be kept open for longer. Pursed lip breathing involves breathing in through your nose and exhaling through pursed lips, ensuring that the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. 

Belly breathing may also help you breathe easier. It involves breathing in with your nose while your hand is placed on your stomach. As you inhale, feel the air reach deeper towards your diaphragm and cause your belly to rise. Relax your neck and shoulders as you exhale, making sure the exhale lasts twice or three times longer than the inhale.[3]

two student-athletes resting in the shade

Living with Asthma

Living with asthma can be made easier by maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking. Although breathing techniques can promote better breathing, asthma symptoms should not be overlooked because the condition can be potentially life-threatening. You should talk to your doctor about the symptoms you experience, even if they are mild and not bothersome. 

Once you are on the right medication for your asthma, you may still need to monitor your symptoms and learn how to anticipate an impending asthma attack. Reducing occurrences of asthma attacks can come down to avoiding the triggers. There is no cure for asthma, but your doctor may prescribe Singulair (montelukast), Symbicort Inhaler (budesonide/formoterol), or Ventolin Inhaler (salbutamol) to keep your symptoms under control. Finally, if you need to use your rescue inhaler more than three times a week, talk to your doctor to make adjustments to your treatment plan. [3] 

The content provided in this article is based on thorough research and in some cases, reviewed by a medical professional. Our goal for the information is to provide helpful, general health informational. It is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice.