Asthma Asthma Attack

Call 9-1-1 if your medicines are not working during an asthma attack or the attack is severe.

Asthma attacks happen when the airways swell and narrow, making it harder to breathe. During an asthma attack, symptoms get much worse. Attacks can come on fast or gradually and may be life-threatening. People with severe asthma tend to get asthma attacks more often.

Airway narrowing in an asthma attack.
Airway narrowing from an asthma attack. The image on the left shows the location of the lungs in the body. The middle image is a close-up of a normal airway, and the image on the right shows a narrowed, inflamed airway typical of an asthma attack. Medical Illustration Copyright © 2022 Nucleus Medical Media. All rights reserved.

What does an asthma attack feel like?

Asthma attacks can be very scary. For some people, an attack starts with coughing. During an attack, your chest may feel tight or like someone is sitting on it. Some people say it’s like having the air sucked out of them or trying to suck air in through a straw. You may start to wheeze or feel lightheaded.

Have a plan for asthma attacks

Follow your asthma action plan to help you know what to do and when to call 9-1-1 for emergency care. You should also use your rescue inhaler as soon as you start to have symptoms.

When to call your doctor

You should seek care right away if you or your child has symptoms and:

  • Has been hospitalized for asthma in the past year or had life-threatening asthma attacks in the past
  • Recently needed oral corticosteroids taken by mouth to treat asthma
  • Has not been using inhaled corticosteroids
  • Uses more than one canister of inhaled short-acting beta2-agonist (SABA) medicine each month
  • Has a mental health condition or an alcohol or drug use disorder
  • Does not closely follow the asthma action plan
  • Has a food allergy

For young children with asthma, call 9-1-1 if they:

  • Seem drowsy, confused, or troubled
  • Have a blue tint to the skin and lips
  • Have a fast heartbeat

Call your doctor if:

  • Your medicines do not relieve an asthma attack
  • Your peak flow number is low, if you have a peak flow meter

When to go to the ER

You should go to the ER if at-home treatments are not working or if you have a severe asthma attack. If you need emergency care, you may be treated with medicines given with a nebulizer (a machine that changes liquid medicine into mist that you can breathe in) or through an intravenous (IV) in your arm. You may also receive oxygen therapy or breathing support with a ventilator.

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