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.

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 2 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 health care 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 health care provider.

An asthma attack can be a life-threatening emergency. That’s why it is important that you 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.

1. Book an urgent appointment with your healthcare provider. They will work with you to assess your current health state. They may perform pulmonary function tests to evaluate your lung health. They may also work with you to update your Asthma Action Plan, review your treatment plan, and check your inhaler technique. If you visited the emergency department, be sure to inform your health care provider if you were prescribed any medication.

Even if you feel better, you must contact your healthcare team to book an urgent appointment and inform them that you had an asthma attack. They will need to make sure you are not at risk for another attack.

      • You need to request an urgent same-day appointment if you had an asthma attack and used your blue reliever inhaler but did not seek medical attention.
      • You need to book an urgent appointment within two working days if you were in hospital or used any of your ‘rescue’ steroid medication to deal with your asthma symptoms.

2. Keep taking your asthma medication as prescribed. Your healthcare team may prescribe steroid tablets to combat swelling and inflammation in your airways after your attack.

3. Take the rest of the day to recover after the attack. After you’ve had an asthma attack, you may feel physically and emotionally tired. It is important that you get as much rest as you can. Many people have trouble sleeping after they experience an attack, so try to make your home environment as calm as possible to give yourself time to relax. Reschedule social events for when you are feeling well enough. Give your body time to rest and recover.

4. Call Asthma Canada’s Asthma & Allergy HelpLine for support and information after your asthma attack. A Certified Respiratory Educator may provide you with expert advice, resources, and even support group information.

5. If your symptoms return or worsen, seek medical attention right away. Do not hesitate to seek medical care.

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.