A blue inhaler sitting on a white table.
A fast-acting rescue inhaler can help open airways during an asthma attack.

How to Treat Asthma Attack

An asthma attack can vary from mild to severe. In some cases, an asthma attack can be life-threatening. If you or anyone you know has asthma, it is helpful to understand how to treat an asthma attack.

What is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack is the development of asthma symptoms; it can come on very suddenly. During an asthma attack, a person’s airways become inflamed and swollen. This causes a narrowing of the airways. The airways also produce increased mucus, which blocks the bronchial tubes further. Airway muscles also constrict. This combination of changes leads to common asthma attack symptoms, including:

  • Wheezing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Cough

Causes of an Asthma Attack?

Several things can trigger an asthma attack. Everyone has a unique experience with asthma. Some people have certain allergens that cause symptoms. For others, anxiety, cold weather, or exercise may cause an asthma attack. In some instances, it is not clear what leads to an asthma attack.

How Can You Help?

If you witness someone having an asthma attack, you might wonder what you can do. The amount of help you can provide may depend on the equipment you have and the severity of the attack. But there are several things you can do, which may help and won’t hurt. Consider the following:

Remain Calm

Seeing someone having an asthma attack may be stressful. Try to remain calm. If you panic, the person having the attack is also likely to panic. Use a calm voice when talking to the individual having symptoms.

Have the Person Sit Up

If someone is standing, have them sit down to avoid falling in case they get dizzy. Once seated, encourage the person to sit up straight and avoid leaning over. Sitting up straight provides better lung expansion.

Encourage Pursed-lip Breathing

Pursed-lip breathing involves inhaling slowly through the nose and exhaling for double the amount of time through the mouth with pursed lips. It is used to reduce shortness of breath. It helps by slowing the person’s breathing down and allowing them time to exhale and avoid air trapping in the lungs. Pursing the lips also creates back pressure in the airways and helps when someone has trouble breathing.

Remove the Trigger

If you know what caused the asthma attack and can remove the trigger, do so. For example, if cold weather triggered the attack, go inside where it is warmer.

Know When to Call 911

There are some instances where an asthma attack is life-threatening, and it is vital to call for emergency medical help. Call 911 immediately if the person having the attack experiences:

  • An inability to talk in sentences
  • Bluish skin
  • Retractions, which is sucking in between the neck and ribs
  • Confusion

If you are in doubt about whether to call 911, it is always best to be on the safe side and call for help.

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How Can You Help Treat Someone Having an Asthma Attack?

The key to preventing a severe asthma attack is to spot symptoms early and treat the flare-up as soon as possible. Your ability to treat someone depends on what supplies you have.

In some cases, it may be possible to help treat someone having an asthma attack. Keep in mind that you should not share medication or give someone something that is not prescribed for them. But if someone has their fast-acting medication, such as albuterol or their rescue inhaler, you can help them take it.

When someone is having an asthma attack, they may become anxious. They may require help setting up their nebulizer, including placing the medication.

If the person has their inhaler, you can help prime it and get it ready for use. This includes shaking the inhaler and attaching an aero chamber if the fast-acting inhaler is a metered-dose inhaler. If you are helping a child or someone who cannot use an aero chamber correctly, consider using the mask that attaches to the chamber. The mask is placed over the person’s mouth and nose before pressing the inhaler.

What Medical Supplies Are Needed to Help Treat an Asthma Attack?

In order to treat someone who is having an asthma attack, you need to have certain medical supplies. To treat mild to moderate asthma attacks, it is helpful to have the following:

  • A rescue inhaler: A fast-acting rescue inhaler works quickly to open up the airways and improve shortness of breath.
  • Nebulizer: A nebulizer creates an aerosol mist, which is inhaled into the lungs. The same medication given in a rescue inhaler can be administered through a nebulizer.

In other cases, advanced medical supplies are needed to provide emergency care. If an asthma attack is severe, supplies needed may help administer intravenous steroids or help support breathing. Additional emergency supplies needed by EMS may include:

  • Oxygen
  • BiPAP machine
  • Pulse oximetry to monitor oxygen levels
  • Resuscitation bag and mask

How to Prevent an Asthma Attack

Prevention is also best when it comes to asthma. There are things you can do to prevent an asthma attack:

  • Reduce exposure to triggers
  • Take asthma medication as prescribed
  • Monitor your peak flow to spot problems early
  • Follow your asthma action plan
  • Avoid smoking