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What is an Asthma Attack?

Friday 24 May 2024
8 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What Happens During An Asthma Attack?

II. How to Stop an Asthma Attack

III. Stopping an Asthma Attack without an Inhaler

IV. How to Avoid Asthma Attacks

i. Asthma Attack Warning Signs

ii. Asthma Attack Triggers

iii. Following Your Asthma Action Plan

V. Conclusion

An asthma attack can be a frightening experience. You may find it difficult to take a full breath and become too breathless to speak or eat. [1]

The good news is there are ways to manage asthma attacks and even prevent them from happening. The key is to understand potential triggers and have an action plan in place. In this article, we’ll walk through what’s happening in your body during an asthma attack, how to stop an asthma attack with or without an inhaler, and the steps you can take to avoid asthma attacks altogether.

What Happens During An Asthma Attack?

Asthma is a chronic condition that causes swelling inside the airways of your lungs, making them extra sensitive and reactive to triggers such as viruses, allergens, irritants, and even emotions. [2]

During an asthma attack, the swelling inside the airways intensifies, leading to the production of extra mucus and a narrowing of the space for air to move in and out of the lungs. This can cause breathing to become more difficult. [2]

Asthma attacks can be triggered by a variety of factors, which can vary from person to person. It is essential to identify your specific triggers and take steps to avoid them. [3] Some common asthma triggers include:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Dust mites
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Pets
  • Mold
  • Smoke
  • Infections [3]

The best way to avoid asthma attacks is to identify which triggers affect you and take steps to limit exposure to them. [3]

Symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • Worsening asthma symptoms
  • Finding that your reliever inhaler does not provide relief
  • You become too breathless to speak or eat
  • You feel like you can’t catch your breath [1]

The duration of an asthma attack depends on the trigger and how inflamed the airways already are. [2]

  • Mild asthma attacks may only last a few minutes and can resolve on their own or by using a rescue inhaler. 
  • Severe asthma attacks can last for hours or even days. If your rescue inhaler does not provide relief during a severe attack, go to the emergency room right away. Getting quick treatment can help shorten the attack and prevent it from becoming life-threatening. [2]

How to Stop an Asthma Attack

a woman using an inhaler

If you find yourself experiencing an asthma attack, it is important to act quickly to open your airways. Follow these steps to help alleviate symptoms:

  1. Use your rescue inhaler immediately. Take one puff of your rescue inhaler every 30 to 60 seconds, up to 10 puffs. [4] Your rescue inhaler contains a bronchodilator that quickly opens your airways and makes breathing easier. Most bronchodilators will restore normal breathing within 10 to 15 minutes, and the effects last around 4 hours. [5]
  1. Sit up straight to keep your airways open. Lying down or bending over can further constrict your airways during an asthma attack. [5]
  1. If your symptoms worsen or do not improve, call an ambulance immediately. An ambulance can provide emergency care on the way to the hospital. [4]

Even if your symptoms stabilize after using a rescue inhaler, you should still schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. Asthma attacks indicate your asthma may not be fully under control, and your treatment plan may need adjustment. [5]

How to Stop an Asthma Attack Without An Inhaler

a woman having an asthma attack

If you're having an asthma attack and don't have your rescue inhaler on hand, use these tips to manage your symptoms until emergency help arrives:

  • Sit upright with your back straight to open your airways as much as possible. Lying down or bending over will only constrict your airways further. [5]
  • Take slow, deep breaths through your nose and exhale through your mouth. This controlled breathing can help maximize airflow into your lungs. [5]
  • Get away from the trigger. If possible, remove yourself from whatever is triggering your attack. Go to a clean, cool area and continue your focused breathing. [5]
  • Drink a warm, caffeinated drink. Caffeine acts similarly to some asthma medications by opening your airways. Coffee or tea may provide temporary relief during an attack. [5]
  • If your symptoms do not improve or worsen, call an ambulance. An ambulance can provide emergency care on the way to a hospital. [4]

Even if your symptoms improve with these tips, make sure to follow up with your doctor as soon as possible. Frequent or severe asthma attacks may mean your condition is not fully under control, and your treatment plan needs adjustment. Your doctor can help get your asthma back under control and reduce future attacks. [5]

How to Avoid Asthma Attacks

Although asthma has no cure, [3] you can take steps to manage your condition successfully and reduce asthma attacks. Successful asthma management includes:

  • Being aware of early warning signs of an asthma attack
  • Avoiding triggers
  • Following your Asthma Action Plan [3]

Be Aware of Early Warning Signs

It's important to be aware of the early warning signs of an asthma attack so you can act quickly if your symptoms start to worsen. Recognizing the early warning signs will help you be better prepared if an asthma attack occurs.

Keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

  • Low peak flow readings: If you use a peak flow meter as part of your Asthma Action Plan, pay close attention to your peak expiratory flow (PEF) values. PEF readings below your personal best could signal worsening asthma.
  • Increased quick-relief inhaler use: If you find yourself reaching for your quick-relief inhaler more often for symptom relief, your asthma may be destabilizing.
  • Fatigue and dark under-eye circles: Subtle signs like feeling tired or rundown could reflect worsening asthma symptoms. Let your doctor know if you feel fatigued. [6]

Avoid Triggers

Everyone with asthma has different triggers that can cause an attack. By knowing your personal triggers and avoiding them, you can prevent asthma attacks. If complete avoidance isn't feasible, be extra vigilant about monitoring your symptoms when you know you'll be exposed. [3]

Some of the most common asthma triggers include:

  • Second-hand smoke and tobacco smoke contain harmful chemicals that can irritate your lungs and airways, leading to an asthma attack. Therefore, it's essential to avoid smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke as much as possible.
  • Dust mites are tiny bugs that live in many homes, and for those with dust mite allergies, exposure can trigger an asthma attack. To avoid this, use allergen-proof covers for bedding, wash bedding weekly in hot water, reduce humidity in your home, and avoid down bedding.
  • Outdoor air pollution can trigger attacks. It's crucial to monitor air quality forecasts and limit time outside when pollution levels are high.
  • Pet dander and saliva contain proteins that can trigger attacks in those with pet allergies. If possible, find a new home for pets. Otherwise, bathe pets weekly, keep them out of the bedroom, use an air purifier with a HEPA filter, and use allergen-proof bedding.
  • Mold growth releases spores that can trigger attacks even without an allergy. Therefore, it's essential to eliminate excess moisture and clean up any mold to help prevent attacks, especially in places like bathrooms, kitchens, basements, or areas with water damage.
  • Disinfectants and harsh cleaning products contain chemicals that can irritate your lungs and airways, triggering an attack. It's best to stay away from areas where these products were recently used or are in use. [7]

Follow Your Asthma Action Plan

Creating and following an Asthma Action Plan is crucial for managing your asthma symptoms and being prepared for any potential asthma attacks. This plan is developed with your doctor, and it contains a detailed guide on addressing your asthma symptoms before they escalate. [6]

Your asthma plan will outline three zones based on your symptoms:

  • Green zone: You have mild or minimal symptoms. This is where you ideally should be on a day-to-day basis. Take your long-term control medication regimen as prescribed.
  • Yellow zone: Your symptoms are worsening, requiring more quick-relief medicine. Pay close attention to your environment, take all medicines as prescribed, and inform your doctor about symptoms.
  • Red zone: You may be experiencing a medical emergency with severe symptoms. Seek medical help immediately. [6]

For each zone, your action plan lists specific medications and dosages. This helps ensure you take the right medication at the right time. For example, your action plan may detail:

  • The specific medication to take.
  • The correct dosage of medication.
  • The frequency and timing of medication intake. [6]

Discuss your asthma medications with your doctor when creating your plan. Depending on the severity and frequency of your symptoms, you may require quick-relief medications for occasional mild symptoms or long-term controller medications for persistent issues. [8]

For individuals needing both types of medications, combination inhalers offer more convenience, as they combine both medication types into one inhaler. [8] Popular combination inhalers include:


An asthma attack can be a frightening experience, leaving you feeling breathless and anxious. However, by being prepared and following your personal Asthma Action Plan, you can effectively manage asthma attacks or even prevent them from happening. Taking quick action can often stop an attack before it becomes severe.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.