Asthma attack

In an asthma attack, the muscles of the air passages in the lungs go into spasm. This makes the airways narrower, making it difficult to breathe.

Sometimes something specific can trigger an attack, such as an allergy, a cold, or cigarette smoke. At other times, someone may have a sudden attack with no obvious trigger.

People with asthma usually deal with their own attacks by using a blue reliever inhaler at the first sign of an attack. But if someone doesn’t have an inhaler, or the attack is severe, you may need to help.

What to look for

If you think someone is having an asthma attack, these are the five key things to look for:

  1. Difficulty breathing or speaking
  2. Wheezing
  3. Coughing
  4. Distress
  5. Grey-blue tinge to the lips, earlobes and nailbeds (known as cyanosis).

What you need to do

• First, reassure them and ask them to breathe slowly and deeply which will help them control their breathing.

• Then help them use their reliever inhaler straight away. This should relieve the attack.

• Next, sit them down in a comfortable position.

• If it doesn’t get better within a few minutes, it may be a severe attack. Get them to take one or two puffs of their inhaler every two minutes, until they’ve had 10 puffs.

• If the attack is severe and they are getting worse or becoming exhausted, or if this is their first attack, then call 999/112 for an ambulance.

• Help them to keep using their inhaler if they need to. Keep checking their breathing, pulse and level of response.

• If they lose consciousness at any point, open their airway, check their breathing and prepare to treat someone who’s become unconscious.

Essential first aid

Z card first aid techniques booklet St John

Get our first aid guide

First aid manual

First Aid Manual 10 editionWith step-by-step photographs, improve your first aid knowledge with the UK's leading manual.

Contact and copyright info