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How to Help Someone Having an Asthma Attack

February 3, 2021

The number of people with asthma has been steadily increasing since the 1980s—today, nearly 1 in 13 people are diagnosed. Depending on the severity of the case, asthma can be a mild, occasional inconvenience or a daily struggle.

Most cases are manageable with medication, but a flare-up of symptoms can cause an asthma attack, which can be deadly if the victim isn’t properly treated. Whether it’s a stranger or a friend, knowing how to react when someone is having an asthma attack is vital, especially if the victim doesn’t have medication or an inhaler on their person.

What Does an Asthma Attack Look Like?

Asthma creates an inflammation in the airways. When the symptoms are triggered, the combination of the narrowed passages and the increased production of mucus makes it difficult to breathe. Asthma triggers differ depending on the individual, but they’re often airborne irritants, like smoke, pollen, mold, dust, or animal dander. Other common ones include cold air, respiratory infections, and certain food or drinks—stress or exercise can even be a trigger for some.

Like triggers, symptoms of an asthma attack look different from person to person. Look for difficulty breathing, sometimes accompanied by wheezing or coughing. The victim may express a tightness in their chest, and their skin may become blue-tinged with decreased oxygen flow.

How to Help

Keep yourself and the victim as calm as possible—panic can further escalate the attack and make it even harder to breathe. If you know what caused the asthma attack or if the victim can identify it for you, move them away from the source of the trigger. Help them sit, keep them upright, and loosen any restrictive clothing to open their airways as much as possible.

Inhalers provide fast relief during asthma attacks by delivering medicine directly to the lungs. If the victim has their inhaler with them, check the instructions on the side to make sure they’re getting the amount of medicine they’re prescribed. If you’re in a public building, some first aid packs contain a blue rescue inhaler, which can be used if the victim doesn’t have one of their own, but never use someone else’s inhaler.

No one plans to have an asthma attack, but it’s possible to be caught unaware and without an inhaler; asthma can develop at any age, and the victim might not even know they have it until an attack is upon them. Sipping a hot, caffeinated drink has been shown to help open the airways for a limited period of time, giving you enough time to seek professional medical attention, but coffee or tea shouldn’t be used to replace proper treatment.

When to Call 911

Be prepared to call 911 if the victim:

  • Has no plan to treat their asthma
  • Has symptoms that don’t improve or even worsen after treatment
  • Is unable to speak in full sentences
  • Is struggling to walk
  • Becomes drowsy

Remember: if you’re unsure if the victim needs professional medical attention, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

For more information on first aid during emergency situations, visit the Specialized Health and Safety blog.