Asthma is a common condition in which breathing becomes difficult because of inflammation of the air passages. The airways become narrowed by muscle spasm, swelling and increased mucus production, often causing a wheeze to be heard. Air is trapped in the lungs by the swollen airways and the patient has most difficulty breathing out.


Common triggers for an asthma attack are chest infection, pollens, dust, fur, smoke, cold air or exercise. Patients with asthma may be taking prescribed medication to avoid an asthma attack. These drugs are called ‘preventers’ and are colour-coded in shades of red, brown and gold. Preventers are of no use during an asthma attack. During an asthma attack, the patient can take a prescribed ‘reliever’ medication, preferably through a ‘spacer’ device, which helps to hold the medication and overcome the difficulty of inhaling it during an attack. Reliever containers are colour-coded in shades of grey or blue, and the medication quickly relaxes airway spasm.

Symptoms and signs – Not all may be present

  • Breathlessness and difficulty speaking more than a few words without a gasp of air
  • wheezing
  • persistent cough, often moist and ‘rattling’
  • poor skin colour, especially blueness of lips and fingertips
  • obvious difficulty breathing

How you can help

1.      Help the patient to rest

  • Help the patient into a position of greatest comfort. Usually, this is sitting upright, leaning forward with arms resting on a table. 

2.      Assist with medication

  • Help the patient take any ‘reliever’ medication they have. If a spacer is available, the patient should use it to take the medication, one puff at a time, followed by 6 breaths to empty the spacer. Repeat until symptoms are relieved.
  • Inhaler: 1 puff per minute (more or less) until symptoms are relieved.
  • If the patient does not have any personal medication available, be prepared to borrow a ‘reliever’ from another person


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Call 111 for an ambulance if the patient has no medication or the medication is having no effect

  • Continue to assist the patient with 6 puffs every 6 minutes until an ambulance arrives. 

3.      Follow-up care

  • If improvement occurs, keep the patient at rest until the skin colour is normal. 
  •  If the patient is a child, ensure that the parents are informed and advise a medical check with the family doctor.

See a doctor if you are concerned

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you are uncertain

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