Asthma Attack: Care Instructions

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Lungs in chest showing bronchial tubes in left lung, with detail of bronchial tube affected by asthma attack compared to one with managed asthma

Overview

During an asthma attack, the airways swell and narrow. This makes it hard to breathe. Severe asthma attacks can be dangerous. But you can help prevent these attacks by keeping your asthma under control and treating symptoms before they get bad. Symptoms include being short of breath, having chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing. Noting and treating these symptoms can also help you avoid trips to the emergency room.

If you notice any problems or new symptoms, get medical treatment right away.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Follow your asthma action plan to prevent and treat attacks. If you don't have an asthma action plan, work with your doctor to create one.
  • Take your asthma medicines exactly as prescribed. Talk to your doctor right away if you have any questions about how to take them.
    • Use your quick-relief medicine when you have symptoms of an asthma attack. Some people need to use quick-relief medicine before they exercise to prevent asthma symptoms. Albuterol is a quick-relief medicine that is often used. In some cases, a certain type of controller inhaler is used as a quick-relief medicine. Ask your doctor what to use for quick relief.
    • Take your controller medicine. If you have symptoms often, you will likely need to take it every day. Controller medicine usually includes an inhaled corticosteroid. The goal is to prevent problems before they occur.
    • If your doctor prescribed corticosteroid pills to use during an attack, take them exactly as prescribed. It may take hours for the pills to work, but they may make the episode shorter and help you breathe better.
    • Keep your quick-relief medicine with you at all times.
  • Talk to your doctor before using other medicines. Some medicines, such as aspirin, can cause asthma attacks in some people.
  • If you have a peak flow meter, use it to check how well you are breathing. This can help you predict when an asthma attack is going to occur. Then you can take medicine to prevent the asthma attack or make it less severe.
  • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you. Avoid smoky places. Smoking makes asthma worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Learn what triggers an asthma attack for you, and avoid the triggers when you can. Common triggers include colds, smoke, air pollution, dust, pollen, mold, pets, cockroaches, stress, and cold air.
  • Avoid infections such as COVID-19, colds, and the flu. Wash your hands often. Talk to your doctor about getting a pneumococcal vaccine. If you have had one before, ask your doctor if you need a second dose. Get a flu vaccine every fall. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your symptoms do not get better after you have followed your asthma action plan.
  • You have new or worse trouble breathing.
  • Your coughing and wheezing get worse.
  • You cough up dark brown or bloody mucus (sputum).
  • You have a new or higher fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You need to use quick-relief medicine on more than 2 days a week within a month (unless it is just for exercise).
  • You cough more deeply or more often, especially if you notice more mucus or a change in the color of your mucus.
  • You are not getting better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.