Asthma attacks

Asthma can sometimes get worse for a short time - this is known as an asthma attack. It can happen suddenly, or gradually over a few days.

Reduce the risk of an asthma attack being triggered by any virus by making sure your asthma is well managed. This means taking your preventer inhaler every day as prescribed. You should also keep your reliever inhaler with you all the time so you can use it if your symptoms get worse.

If you're on the right asthma treatment, your chance of having an attack is greatly reduced.

Visit your doctor or asthma nurse at least once a year for a check-up and to discuss your treatment.

Symptoms of an asthma attack

Signs that you may be having an asthma attack include:

  • your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheezing or tight chest)
  • your reliever inhaler (usually blue) isn't helping
  • you're too breathless to speak, eat or sleep
  • your breathing is getting faster and it feels like you can't catch your breath
  • your peak flow score is lower than normal

The symptoms will not necessarily occur suddenly. In fact, they often come on slowly over a few hours or days.

Children may also complain of a tummy or chest ache

What to do if you have an asthma attack

If you think you're having an asthma attack:

  1. Sit upright (don't lie down) and try to take slow, steady breaths. Try to remain calm, as panicking will make things worse.
  2. Take 1 puff of your reliever inhaler (usually blue) every 30 to 60 seconds, up to a maximum of 10 puffs.
  3. Call 112/999 for an ambulance if you don't have your inhaler with you, you feel worse despite using your inhaler, you don't feel better after taking 10 puffs or you're worried at any point.
  4. If the ambulance hasn't arrived within 15 minutes, repeat step 2.

Never be frightened of calling for help in an emergency.

Try to take the details of your medicines (or your personal asthma action plan) with you to hospital if possible.

If your symptoms improve and you don't need to call 112/999, get an urgent appointment to see your GP.

After an asthma attack

It's important to discuss how you can reduce your risk of future attacks. Talk to your GP or nurse about any changes that may need to be made to manage your condition safely.

The dose of your treatment may need to be adjusted or you may need to be shown how to use your inhaler correctly.

Preventing asthma attacks

You can reduce your risk of having an asthma attack by::

  • following your personal asthma action plan and take all of your medicines as prescribed
  • having regular asthma reviews with your GP or asthma nurse – these should be done at least once a year
  • checking with your GP or asthma nurse that you're using your inhaler correctly
  • avoiding things that trigger your symptoms whenever possible

Don't ignore your symptoms if they're getting worse. Be aware of needing to use your reliever inhaler more often.

Follow your action plan. Make an urgent appointment to see your GP if your symptoms continue to get worse.

Advice for friends and family

It's important that your friends and family know how to help in an emergency.

Make copies of your personal asthma action plan. Share it with others who may need to know what to do when you have an attack.

You can photocopy your existing plan. You can also download a blank personal asthma action plan from the Asthma Society of Ireland and fill it in.

You could take a photo of your action plan on your phone, so you can show or send it to others.

Living with asthma

With treatment, most people with asthma can live normal lives. There are also some simple ways you can help keep your symptoms under control.

Things you can do

Use your inhaler correctly

The Asthma Society of Ireland has information about using your inhaler. You can ask your nurse or GP for advice if you're still not sure.

Use your preventer inhaler or tablets every day

This can help keep your symptoms under control and prevent asthma attacks.

Check before taking other medicines

Always check the packet to see if a medicine is suitable for someone with asthma. Ask a pharmacist, doctor or nurse if you're not sure.

Do not smoke

Stopping smoking can reduce how severe and frequent your symptoms are.

Exercise regularly

Exercise should not trigger your symptoms once you're on appropriate treatment. The Asthma Society of Ireland has advice about exercising with asthma.

Eat healthily

Most people with asthma can have a normal diet.

Get vaccinated

It's a good idea to have the annual flu jab and the one-off pneumococcal vaccination.

Asthma triggers

Asthma symptoms often occur in response to a trigger.

Common triggers include:

  • infections like colds and flu
  • allergies – such as to pollen, dust mites, animal fur or feathers
  • smoke, fumes and pollution
  • medicines – particularly anti-inflammatory painkillers like ibuprofen and aspirin
  • emotions, including stress, or laughter
  • weather – sudden changes in temperature, cold air, wind, thunderstorms, heat and humidity
  • mould or damp
  • exercise

Once you know your triggers, trying to avoid them may help control your asthma symptoms.

Make a note of where you are and what you're doing when your symptoms get worse.

Some triggers can be hard to avoid, but it may be possible to avoid some, such as dust mites, pet fur and some medicines.

Speak to your GP if you think you've identified a trigger for your symptoms.

The Asthma Society of Ireland has more information on asthma triggers.

Regular check-ups

You'll have regular contact with your GP to monitor your condition.

These appointments may involve:

  • talking about your symptoms – if they're affecting your normal activities or are getting worse
  • a discussion about your medicines – including if you think you might be experiencing any side effects
  • breathing tests

It's also a good chance to ask any questions you have or raise any other issues you want to discuss.

You may be asked to help monitor your condition between appointments. For example, you may be advised to check your peak flow if you think your symptoms may be getting worse.

Your personal action plan should say what to do if your symptoms get gradually or suddenly worse. Contact your doctor or asthma nurse if you're not sure what to do.

Cold weather and asthma

Cold weather is a common trigger for asthma symptoms. The following to help you control your symptoms in the cold:

  • carry your reliever inhaler with you at all times and keep taking your regular preventer inhaler as prescribed
  • if you need to use your inhaler more than usual, speak to your doctor about reviewing your treatment
  • keep warm and dry – wear gloves, a scarf and a hat, and carry an umbrella
  • wrap a scarf loosely over your nose and mouth – this will help warm up the air before you breathe it
  • try breathing in through your nose instead of your mouth – your nose warms the air as you breathe

Asthma Society of Ireland has more about weather and asthma.

Pregnancy and asthma

Asthma doesn't affect your chances of having children. The vast majority of women with asthma will have a normal pregnancy.

Generally, treatment stays the same during pregnancy. Most asthma medicines, particularly inhalers, are considered safe while pregnant or breastfeeding.

But you should speak to your GP if you become pregnant or are planning a pregnancy.

Your symptoms may get worse during pregnancy. But some women find they improve. Your treatment may need to be reviewed regularly.

Poorly controlled asthma in pregnancy can increase the risk of complications. These could be pre-eclampsia and premature birth.

Extra precautions may need to be taken during labour to avoid an asthma attack. But asthma attacks during labour are rare

The Asthma Society of Ireland has more information on Asthma in pregnancy.

Read more about COVID-19 and pregnancy

Talking to others

Many people with asthma can have feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.

You may find it helpful to talk about your experience of asthma with others. Patient organisations have local groups where you can meet people who have been diagnosed with asthma.

If you feel you're struggling to cope, talk to your GP. They will be able to give advice and support. You can also find depression support services in your area.

The Asthma Society of Ireland website has more information and online supports.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

Page last reviewed: 27 March 2020
Next review due: 27 March 2023