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How to Help Someone During an Asthma Attack

How to Help Someone During an Asthma Attack

Imagine you’re going about your day. You’re in the store or maybe you hopped out of the car to pick up your kids or spouse. Suddenly, you realize that you’re out of breath. You try to push through, but then it hits. It feels like your lungs are shutting down, or like you’re underwater, trying to breathe through a straw. A woman walks by, notices you hunched, breathing quickly, wheezing—she asks if you’re ok, but honestly, you can’t even answer her.

You’re having an asthma attack.

Sound scary? It can be terrifying, and for people who have asthma, being suddenly unable to breathe—or having an asthma attack—is a fear they have to live with every single day. It’s not just uncomfortable—it’s scary and can be deadly. In fact, 3,500 people (including just under 200 children) die every single year due to consequences of asthma.

But what is an asthma attack and what can you do about it in the moment? Knowing what to do may just save someone’s life.

What’s happening in the body?
When you breathe, the oxygen goes from your mouth or nose into what’s known as “airways,” or tubes that carry oxygen to your lungs. In a person with asthma, after being exposed to certain “triggers” (such as pollen or smoke or viruses, among many others), these airways become inflamed and start to narrow. It can even feel like trying to breathe through a straw (if you want to know what having asthma feels like, try it). It’s hard to get air in and even harder to get it out. Shortness of breath, tightness in the chest or feelings of suffocation are—naturally—absolutely terrifying.

What are the signs of an asthma attack?
One of the classic signs is wheezing, or the high-pitched breathing sound that you may hear from someone with an asthma attack. One thing I’ve learned in my years practicing as an ER doctor, however, is that someone can have an asthma attack and not make any wheezing noise at all. In fact, the scariest, most severe and most dangerous asthma attacks are those attacks that don’t produce any noise. That’s because the airways are so narrowed, little to no air is passing through.

What to do immediately

  • Use a rescue Inhaler: Someone having an asthma attack needs to use their “rescue inhaler” immediately. This is a medication (usually a pump) that relaxes the airways and helps them open, so the person can breathe again.
  • Sit down, breathe slowly, remain calm: Try to have the person experiencing an attack sit down, breathe slowly and steadily if they can, and remain calm. 
  • Go to the ER if needed: If the above steps don’t help, a trip to the emergency room for further treatment may be necessary. If the person used their rescue medications and they’re still short of breath, they need to see their physician. If their symptoms are severe, it’s time to call 9-1-1. 

Preventing future attacks: 

  • Know and avoid triggers: To minimize the risk of asthma attacks, it’s important to be aware of your personal asthma triggers, and avoid them. Triggers can be different for every patient, but typically include dust, mold, some animals, being sick (such as the cold or flu) or cigarette smoke. 
  • Take all medications as prescribed: Asthma patients should also be very careful to be compliant with their long-term controller medications as prescribed by their doctor. 
  • Talk to your doctor if you’re using your rescue inhaler frequently: If you’re using your rescue inhaler more than two times a week, then it’s time to talk to your doctor about long-term controller medications.

Medically reviewed in January 2018.

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