Asthma Asthma Attack

Call 9-1-1 if your medicines are not relieving your symptoms during an asthma attack or if breathing is still very hard.

Asthma attacks, or flare-ups, happen when swelling or tightening narrows the airways, making it harder to breathe. During an asthma attack, symptoms get much worse. Attacks can come on quickly or gradually and may be life-threatening. People with asthma that is difficult to treat may get asthma attacks more often.

Airway narrowing in an asthma attack.
Airway in the lungs narrowing from an asthma attack. A normal airway is wide, compared with the narrowed, inflamed airway typical of an asthma attack. 

What does an asthma attack feel like?

Asthma attacks can be very scary. For some people, an attack starts with coughing. Your chest may feel tight or like someone is sitting on it. Some people say it feels like having the air sucked out of you 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 reliever inhaler as soon as you start to have symptoms. Your asthma action plan should explain how to tell if your asthma is getting worse and when to increase your reliever and controller medicines. 

You may be able to manage an asthma flare-up with just your reliever inhaler. If you have a serious asthma attack or your symptoms do not go away soon after taking your reliever medicine, you may need medical attention.

When to call your healthcare provider

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

  • Have been hospitalized for asthma in the past year or had life-threatening asthma attacks in the past
  • Recently needed corticosteroids taken by mouth to treat asthma
  • Have not been using inhaled corticosteroids
  • Use more than one canister of inhaled short-acting beta2-agonist (SABA) medicine, a reliever medicine, each month
  • Have a mental health condition or an alcohol or drug use disorder
  • Do not closely follow your asthma action plan
  • Have 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 provider if:

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

When to go to the ER

You should go to the emergency room if your symptoms do not go away soon after taking your at-home medicines or if you have a serious asthma attack. If you need emergency care, you may receive medicines through a nebulizer (a small machine that turns liquid medicine into a mist that you can breathe in) or through an intravenous (IV) line in your arm. In severe circumstances, you may also need oxygen therapy or a ventilator to help you breathe.

Last updated on