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4th December, 20202 min read

Severe asthma attack: symptoms and treatment

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Dr Lauretta Ihonor
Last reviewed: 01/12/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Severe asthma attack: symptoms and treatment

An asthma attack is when someone with asthma has a worsening of their asthma symptoms, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, cough and chest tightness. It’s medically known as an asthma exacerbation.

Some asthma attacks can be less serious than others – meaning that you can usually manage them at home and the symptoms tend to improve when you use your reliever inhaler (usually blue).

But some can be very serious and need urgent medical attention. These are sometimes known as severe asthma attacks, and while milder attacks may last a few minutes, severe ones can continue for hours or days.

This article is about the most serious types of asthma attacks, but you can read more about less serious asthma attacks and how to manage them here.

Symptoms of an asthma attack

The most common symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • coughing
  • making a whistling sound when you breathe
  • feeling like you can’t draw in a full breath
  • a tight chest
  • faster breathing

If you’re having a severe asthma attack, you may notice:

  • it’s hard to talk or finish your sentences
  • your fingers or lips turn blue
  • your heart beats faster than usual
  • you feel faint
  • your inhaler isn’t helping your symptoms

Treatment for a severe asthma attack

A severe asthma attack is a medical emergency and you should call an ambulance if you think you’re having one. If you can’t, ask someone near you to do so.

While waiting for the ambulance, you should:

  • sit upright and take slow, steady breaths
  • avoid lying down
  • try to remain calm – panicking can make your symptoms worse
  • take 1 puff of your reliever inhaler (this is usually blue) every 30 to 60 seconds – do not take more than 10 puffs

If you have asthma, it’s important to have regular asthma check-ups with a doctor or nurse to make sure you’re on the best treatment. This can help reduce your risk of future attacks.


Asthma - Asthma attacks [Internet]. 2020 [cited 1 December 2020]. Available here.

Am I having an asthma attack? [Internet]. Healthily. 2020 [cited 1 December 2020]. Available here.

Asthma attack - Symptoms and causes [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. 2020 [cited 1 December 2020]. Available here.

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