How to Respond to an Asthma Attack

Learn more about asthma attacks and what you can do when they happen.

Young woman suffering an asthma attack.

Updated on April 20, 2023

For people who have asthma, having an asthma attack—during which they are suddenly unable to breathe—is a fear they live with every day. And it’s not just an uncomfortable nuisance. An asthma attack can be deadly. In fact, an estimated 3,500 people (including just under 200 children with asthma) die each year due to the consequences of asthma.

What is an asthma attack and what can you do about it in the moment? Knowing the facts may just help you save someone’s life—or your own.

What’s happening in the body?

When you breathe, oxygen goes from your mouth or nose into your airways. These are flexible 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.

When airways narrow, it can feel like you’re trying to breathe through a straw or as if your lungs are shutting down. 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 frightening and potentially dangerous.

What are the signs of an asthma attack?

One of the classic signs is wheezing, often a high-pitched sound made by someone trying to breathe. In some cases, however, someone having an asthma attack may not make any sound at all. This can indicate a severe and especially dangerous asthma attack: Because the airways have become so narrow, little to no air is passing through.

What to do immediately

If you are having an asthma attack, follow these steps promptly:

Use a rescue inhaler immediately. This is a medication (usually delivered through a spray) that relaxes the airways and helps them open so you can breathe again.

Sit down, breathe slowly, and try to remain calm. This can be easier said than done, but it’s important to try to relax as much as possible. 

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 you used your rescue medications and are still short of breath, you need to see your healthcare provider (HCP). If your symptoms are severe, it’s time to call 911 or head to the ER.

Preventing future attacks

To try to avoid asthma attacks in the future—or reduce their severity—follow these steps:

Know and avoid triggers. To minimize the risk of asthma attacks, it’s important to be aware of your personal asthma triggers and to avoid them as much as possible. Triggers can be different for every patient, but they typically include dust, mold, certain animals, being sick (such as the cold or flu), or cigarette smoke. 

Take all medications as prescribed. Asthma patients should be sure to take their long-term controller medications exactly as prescribed by their HCP. 

Talk to your HCP if you’re using your rescue inhaler frequently. If you’re using your rescue inhaler (which is intended for short-term relief in acute moments) more than two times a week, it’s time to talk to your HCP about starting long-term controller medications to help manage your condition more effectively over time.

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