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What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack occurs when the muscles surrounding the airways tighten (bronchoconstriction) and your airways become too narrow for you to breathe effectively.

An attack can happen suddenly if your asthma is not under control and you are exposed to one of your triggers. Or it can build up slowly, over hours, days or even weeks.

It is important to learn to recognize the symptoms of worsening asthma and know what to do if you have an asthma attack.

What are the symptoms of an asthma attack?

The most common symptoms include:

Mild to Severe (early warning signs of an asthma attack)

  • Disrupted sleep due to asthma symptoms & breathing difficulty
  • Daytime symptoms 4 or more times per week
  • Inability to exercise normally without breathing issues
  • Decreased activity due to asthma
  • Getting a cold/flu

If you experience any of the above symptoms, book an urgent appointment with your healthcare provider. An asthma attack could be on its way. The timely help can prevent dangerous consequences.

Life-Threatening (time to get help – an asthma attack is occurring)

  • Excessive cough, wheeze and chest tightness
  • Difficulty speaking due to asthma
  • Experiencing shortness of breath at rest
  • Lips or nail beds turning blue
  • Reliever (rescue) medication isn’t helping
  • Sweating
  • Feeling anxiety or fear

What to do in an asthma attack:

1. Sit up straight

2. Take your reliever medication (most commonly a blue inhaler) as directed. Use your Asthma Action Plan for reference.

3. Call 911 if your symptoms persist or worsen. Do this if you feel worse at any point or if there is no improvement after taking your medication.

4. Follow-up with your doctor or healthcare provider

An asthma attack can be a life-threatening emergency that’s why you should always carry your reliever (rescue) inhaler with you and never hesitate to call 911 if your symptoms persist.

What to do after an asthma attack:

One in six people who receive treatment at the hospital needs emergency treatment again within two weeks. Asthma attacks are not normal and you should not tolerate them.

Take the following key steps to prevent you having another attack in the future:

  • Book an urgent appointment with your healthcare provider (they will check your health state after the attack, prescribe necessary medication and review your Asthma Action Plan)
  • Keep taking your asthma medication as prescribed
  • Take the rest of the day to recover after the attack (lots of people feel physically and emotionally exhausted)

It is important to know that the majority of severe asthma episodes can be avoided by having good asthma control.

Asthma & Allergy Helpline

 If you have questions about your asthma, you can contact our free Asthma & Allergy HelpLine service, to speak with a Certified Respiratory Educator and get personalized support.

Asthma Resources

If you’re recently diagnosed or are living with asthma, we have many resources that can help you better understand, and manage your disease. Visit the resources section of our website to get started. 

Is Your Asthma Controlled?

Take this short quiz to find out if your asthma is well controlled. Experiencing frequent symptoms or attacks, and relying heavily on your rescue inhaler are signs of poor asthma control.