Managing an asthma attack: What to do and when to seek help (2022)

A person’s action plan serves as an invaluable guide to let them know what to do at home for an asthma attack. It provides instructions on what medications to take and when to call a doctor.

An asthma attack happens when a person’s airways narrow and swell. This makes breathing more difficult and worsens symptoms such as coughing and wheezing. In a 2020 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 41% of individuals with asthma reported that they had experienced an attack within the past 12 months.

Research has not shown that home remedies can stop an asthma attack, but breathing exercises, eucalyptus oil, or ginger may offer some benefits.

Avoiding exposure to known triggers and maintaining a moderate weight may help prevent asthma attacks. Eating a nutritious diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, also may reduce the risk.

This article discusses steps to take immediately for an asthma attack, as well as possible home remedies. It also examines the symptoms, causes, stages, prevention, and outlook.

A person should always keep an up-to-date action plan available. This tells people how to recognize an attack and what to do when it happens. The instructions should specify the following details:

  • what medications to take and their dosage
  • when to take medications
  • when to call a doctor or seek emergency treatment

Since people never know when they may encounter something that triggers an asthma attack, they should keep their doctor-prescribed medications with them at all times.

The following actions can help someone manage an asthma attack:

  1. Remain calm.
  2. Follow the action plan’s instructions, which will likely advise taking a quick-relief medication, usually in the form of an inhaler.
  3. If the inhaler does not relieve symptoms, an inhaled corticosteroid such as prednisone (Rayos) may be necessary. A doctor can provide a prescription.
  4. If shortness of breath or coughing persists or worsens, seek immediate treatment.

Home remedies

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Home remedies or alternative treatments are not proven methods to stop an asthma attack. More research is necessary to determine whether these methods are safe for asthma treatment. However, breathing exercises, eucalyptus oil, or ginger may offer some relief.

Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises may increase lung strength and capacity and help improve symptoms.

Researchers in a 2020 review looked at 22 clinical trials involving 2,880 participants to assess the value of breathing exercises for asthma. They found that breathing exercises may have a positive effect on hyperventilation symptoms, lung function, and quality of life in individuals with mild to moderate asthma.

There are several types of asthma breathing exercises to choose from. Two of these are pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing.

Pursed lip breathing

This technique may help slow breathing and reduce shortness of breath. It involves the following steps:

  1. Inhale, or breathe in, through the nose while the mouth is closed.
  2. Put the lips in a pursed position, as if whistling.
  3. Exhale, or breathe out, through pursed lips. The exhalation should be at least twice as long as the inhalation.

Diaphragmatic breathing

The diaphragm is a muscle below the lungs that plays a role in inhalation. “Belly breathing” is another name for diaphragmatic breathing. This method slows breathing and reduces the body’s oxygen needs.

  1. Place one hand over the stomach and the other on the upper chest.
  2. Inhale through the nose. The stomach should rise, but the upper chest should not.
  3. While keeping the shoulders and neck relaxed, exhale through the mouth. The exhalation should be 2–3 times longer than the inhalation.

Eucalyptus oil

In a 2020 review, researchers looked at prior studies to determine the effect of eucalyptus oil on asthma. The results suggest that, because of its anti-inflammatory effects, eucalyptus oil may be a beneficial therapeutic add-on treatment for asthma that is resistant to steroid medications.

A person should dilute eucalyptus oil — or any other essential oil — in a carrier oil before using it. A person can place the diluted oil in a diffuser and inhale the vapor it releases, or they can apply the diluted oil to their skin.

People should never ingest essential oils or use undiluted essential oils. Also, people should be aware that inhaled eucalyptus oil can be toxic to cats and other pets.

Ginger

In a 2020 study involving test tubes and dust mites, researchers examined the potential benefits of whole ginger extract and 6-shogaol — a bioactive compound in ginger — for asthma. The results indicated that both supplements have potential for relaxing smooth muscles and reducing inflammation in the airways.

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Ginger is available in supplement form, but people should always check with their doctor before starting a new supplement. People can also add ginger to their diet by using it in cooking, consuming products that contain it, or drinking ginger tea.

Symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • coughing, especially at night or in the morning
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness

Although other conditions can cause these symptoms, they frequently follow a pattern in asthma. This may include:

  • coming or going within the same day or over time
  • worsening in the morning or at night
  • starting in response to a trigger such as exercise, cold air, or allergies
  • beginning or worsening with a viral infection

Exposure to various triggers can cause an asthma attack. Experts advise that a person keep a journal to record which things provoke symptoms. This may help a person avoid some triggers in the future.

Potential triggers may include:

  • outdoor triggers such as mold and pollen
  • indoor triggers such as pet dander, mold, and dust mites
  • physical activity, although doctors recommend that people exercise regularly
  • emotional stress such as crying, laughing, or intense anger
  • infections such as flu, colds, and COVID-19
  • poor air quality or very cold air
  • some medications, such as aspirin

Stages

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Asthma has the following four stages:

  • intermittent, which involves symptoms occurring on fewer than 2 days per week and nighttime awakenings less than twice per month
  • mild, which involves symptoms occurring on more than 2 days per week and 3–4 nighttime awakenings per month
  • moderate, which involves symptoms occurring daily and nighttime awakenings more than once per week
  • severe, which involves symptoms occurring throughout the day and nighttime awakenings more than seven times per week

The duration of flare-ups varies.

It depends on the cause and how long the airways have had inflammation.

Mild symptoms may last a few minutes, but more severe symptoms may last hours or days.

According to research from 2020, certain dietary habits can help prevent asthma. Research associates greater fruit and vegetable consumption with lower asthma risk, while dairy consumption — which has a link to higher risk — may worsen symptoms.

Additionally, Mediterranean and vegan diets, which focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes while limiting animal foods, may decrease the risk and reduce flare-ups.

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Other asthma prevention measures include:

  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • avoiding air pollution
  • keeping the home free of dampness and mold
  • avoiding exposure to known triggers

When a person’s asthma is not flaring up, it has only a minimal impact on daily life. However, uncontrolled asthma, which causes frequent or intense symptoms, can result in absences from work and school and a higher risk of emergency room visits. According to CDC data, 61.9% of adults with asthma have the uncontrolled kind.

Asthma is a life threatening illness in some people, as it causes 4,145 deaths per year in the United States. That said, a person can manage their asthma by following their doctor’s prescribed action plan.

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An individual’s action plan makes it easy to know what to do at home for an asthma attack. The plan lists symptoms of an attack and provides instructions on what medications to take and when to seek medical attention.

While home remedies do not stop an asthma attack, they may provide some relief. A person should always check with their doctor before taking a dietary supplement, whether for asthma symptoms or for other purposes.

Symptoms of an asthma attack may include coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

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A variety of triggers may provoke an attack, so it helps to keep track of triggers and avoid them if possible. Attacks can last from a few minutes to hours or days.

Because a severe asthma attack can be life threatening, a person should closely follow instructions in their action plan regarding getting emergency treatment.

FAQs

What should be your first action if someone has an asthma attack? ›

1. Help the person sit in a comfortable position and take their inhaler. When someone has an asthma attack, their airways narrow, making it difficult for them to breathe. An inhaler relaxes the muscles, allowing the airways to expand and ease their breathing.

When should you seek help for an asthma attack? ›

Seek medical attention right away if you have signs or symptoms of a serious asthma attack, which include: Severe breathlessness or wheezing, especially at night or in the early morning. The inability to speak more than short phrases due to shortness of breath. Having to strain your chest muscles to breathe.

What are 4 steps you should take to help someone who is suffering from an asthma attack? ›

What 5 things may identify an asthma attack distress? ›

What Is an Asthma Attack?
  • Severe wheezing when breathing both in and out.
  • Coughing that won't stop.
  • Very rapid breathing.
  • Chest tightness or pressure.
  • Tightened neck and chest muscles, called retractions.
  • Difficulty talking.
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic.
  • Pale, sweaty face.
31 Oct 2021

Who should be called first in the event of an asthma flare up attack? ›

CALL AMBULANCE IMMEDIATELY (DIAL 000)

ALWAYS GIVE ADRENALINE INJECTOR FIRST, and then asthma reliever puffer if someone with known asthma and allergy to food, insects or medication has SUDDEN BREATHING DIFFICULTY (including wheeze, persistent cough or hoarse voice), even if there are no skin symptoms.

How do you calm an asthma attack at home? ›

There are no home remedies for an asthma attack. Asthma is managed with medications, by avoiding triggers, and by creating an asthma action plan with your doctor. Keep a rescue inhaler on hand for immediate relief during an attack. Check the date on the pump regularly to make sure it hasn't expired.

What should be avoided during asthma attack? ›

Food preservatives can also trigger an asthma attack.
...
Food Preservatives and Asthma
  • Dried fruits or vegetables.
  • Potatoes (packaged and some prepared)
  • Wine and beer.
  • Bottled lime or lemon juice.
  • Shrimp (fresh, frozen, or prepared)
  • Pickled foods.
11 Aug 2021

What are the 3 warning signs that you may be having an asthma flare up? ›

Warning signs of a potential asthma attack can include an increase in your need for rescue medication (especially albuterol), a worsening cough, shortness of breath (particularly if it wakes you up at night) and diminished tolerance for exercise.

What are 3 common triggers of an asthma exacerbation? ›

Some of the more common triggers are:
  • upper respiratory infections.
  • colds.
  • allergens such as pollen, mold, and dust mites.
  • cats and dogs.
  • tobacco smoke.
  • cold, dry air.
  • exercise.
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease.

What activities make asthma worse? ›

During exercise and physical activity, you will often breathe more quickly through your mouth, causing cold and dry air to travel to your lungs, irritating the airways. The cold and dry air can cause the muscles around the airway to tighten, increasing the chance of experiencing an asthma flare-up.

How long can an asthma flare up last? ›

Mild symptoms may only last a few minutes while more severe asthma symptoms can last hours or days. Breathing becomes difficult and stressful, like trying to breathe through a straw stuffed with cotton. Common signs and symptoms of asthma include: Shortness of breath.

How do I know how serious my asthma is? ›

Signs of a severe asthma attack include:
  1. wheezing, coughing and chest tightness becoming severe and constant.
  2. being too breathless to eat, speak or sleep.
  3. breathing faster.
  4. a fast heartbeat.
  5. drowsiness, confusion, exhaustion or dizziness.
  6. blue lips or fingers.
  7. fainting.

What happens if you leave an asthma attack untreated? ›

Airway remodeling is a serious condition that happens when asthma is untreated or poorly managed. The lungs become scarred, asthma medicines do not work as well and less air is able to move through your airways. Airway remodeling does not have to happen.

What happens if asthma attack isn't treated? ›

Asthma undiagnosed or untreated aggressively with medicines can lead to an increased risk of lung scarring. This is a permanent damage to your lungs and airways, and you cannot breathe properly forever unless with an external aid. This stage of asthma is irreversible i.e. it cannot be reversed with medications.

What is the life expectancy of someone with asthma? ›

However, asthmatics with reduced lung function or who develop asthma later in life have a poorer prognosis. A European study showed that asthma in an otherwise healthy population shortened life expectancy by 3 years, similar to the effect of smoking.

Why has my asthma suddenly got worse? ›

An asthma flare-up can happen even when asthma is controlled. Asthma flare-ups are also called asthma attacks or exacerbations. Triggers like allergies, respiratory infections (like a cold), cigarette smoke, exercise, or even cold air can cause a flare-up and make asthma symptoms worse.

Can you ignore an asthma attack? ›

Do not ignore your symptoms if they're getting worse or you need to use your reliever inhaler more often than usual. Follow your action plan and make an urgent appointment to see a GP or asthma nurse if your symptoms continue to get worse.

Do you have to stay in hospital after asthma attack? ›

Once your symptoms are under control, they can send you home. But if your symptoms don't improve after emergency treatment, you may be admitted to the hospital and stay overnight, or for a few days. In severe, life threatening cases, a person with asthma may need to stay in the intensive care unit (ICU).

When is asthma considered uncontrolled? ›

Uncontrolled asthma is often defined by the frequency of symptoms. For example: Daytime asthma symptoms (e.g., shortness of breath, chest tightness, cough) more than twice a week. Waking up at night with asthma symptoms more than twice a month.

How do you calm an asthma flare up? ›

A rescue inhaler delivers medication that expands the airways, relieving these symptoms. This helps the person to recover from the attack and breathe normally. Someone with asthma may also use a rescue inhaler before a workout, to prevent an attack.

How can you survive an asthma attack without an inhaler? ›

Tips for When You Don't Have an Inhaler
  1. Sit upright. This opens your airway. ...
  2. Slow down your breathing by taking long, deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose. ...
  3. Stay calm. ...
  4. Get away from the trigger. ...
  5. Drink a warm, caffeinated beverage, such as coffee or tea. ...
  6. Get medical help.

What are the 3 types of asthma attack? ›

Asthma comes in many forms and can develop at any age. Allergic asthma is triggered by allergies. Non-allergic asthma is triggered by irritants in the air. Cough-variant asthma is distinguished by a dry cough.

Do asthma attacks damage the lungs? ›

Airway and lung damage, also known as airway remodeling, is a long-term process where chronic and uncontrolled inflammation from uncontrolled asthma causes irreversible scarring of the lungs and airways.

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