What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack is when your asthma symptoms flare-up, but are not improved by your usual reliever medicine.

Severe asthma attacks may require treatment in hospital and are sometimes life-threatening (these are called asthma emergencies).

During an asthma attack, the muscles surrounding your airways tighten, making the airway narrower and limiting the amount of air that can get into and out of your lungs. The linings of your airways become inflamed (swollen) and produce sticky mucus or phlegm, narrowing the airways further.

You can experience an asthma attack even when you have good asthma control. An asthma attack can happen at any time and may develop within minutes, or more slowly over a few hours or days.

Warning signs of an asthma attack

You may be about to have an asthma attack if:

You shouldn't need to use your reliever medicine on more than 2 days per week.

See your doctor if you need to use it more often or if it’s not working as well as it usually does. This is a sign that your asthma is not well controlled, or is worsening.

Recognising an asthma attack

Asthma attacks cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Breathing through narrowed airways during an attack often causes wheezing (which may be noisy), and you may be constantly coughing or feeling tightness in the chest.

If you have a severe asthma attack, you will find it very difficult to breathe, but your wheezing may be silent. You may also be having a severe asthma attack if:

  • a reliever medicine does not help to relieve your symptoms
  • you are too breathless to do anything and may be too breathless to speak
  • your pulse is racing
  • you feel agitated or restless
  • your lips or fingernails turn blue.

If you are monitoring your peak expiratory flow (PEF) at home, you may notice a reduction in your readings during an asthma attack.

Call 000 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else is having a severe asthma attack and a reliever medicine is not helping. This is an asthma emergency.

Treating an asthma attack

Using a reliever inhaler (or your Symbicort inhaler if Symbicort is your regular asthma medicine) can be enough to reduce symptoms, especially in mild to moderate asthma attacks. However, your usual reliever inhaler may not help to relieve your symptoms as much as usual, so you may need to use more medicine than you normally would. For example, an adult may need to inhale up to 6 or 8 puffs every 5 minutes during a severe attack. Children can be given 4 puffs every 4 minutes.

Using a blue reliever puffer with a spacer device can also help to make the medicine work more effectively when you have an asthma attack.

Asthma emergencies must be treated urgently. If you are admitted to hospital, you may be given oxygen and a reliever medicine by nebuliser (using a mask), and receive injections of a corticosteroid medicine into your vein. Once you recover, you may need to take a course of corticosteroid tablets in addition to your other asthma medicines.

Asthma Action Plan

Ask your doctor for a written Asthma Action Plan to help you manage your symptoms and recognise worsening asthma.

Your Asthma Action Plan records how to use your medicines when your asthma is under control (good asthma control), and what to do if you have an asthma attack.

Make sure that your written Asthma Action Plan is updated to reflect any changes made to your treatment.

Find out more

References
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The relevant consumer medicine information (CMI) and product information (PI) have been consulted for every medicine discussed.

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