Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the lungs. During an asthma attack, the airways become narrower than normal and can cause difficulty breathing.

The severity of an asthma attack can range from mild to very serious. Some asthma attacks may require prompt medical attention.

The preferred way of treating an asthma attack is to use a rescue inhaler, which contains medication that expands your airways.

But what if you’re having an asthma attack and don’t have your rescue inhaler available? There are several things that you can do while you wait for your symptoms to subside or for medical attention. Read on to learn more.

Medical emergency

You should always be sure to seek immediate emergency medical treatment if you experience any of the following symptoms during an asthma attack:

  • your symptoms continue to get worse even after treatment
  • you can’t speak except in short words or phrases
  • you’re straining your chest muscles in an effort to breathe
  • your shortness of breath or wheezing is severe, particularly in the early morning or late-night hours
  • you begin to feel drowsy or tired
  • your lips or face appear blue when you’re not coughing

Sitting upright can help keep your airways open. Be sure to avoid lying down while you’re having an asthma attack, as this can make symptoms worse.

Try to remain as calm as you can while you’re having an asthma attack. Panic and stress can worsen your symptoms.

While you wait for your symptoms to subside or for medical attention to arrive, it may be helpful to turn on the TV or play some music to help keep yourself calm.

Try to take slow, steady breaths during an attack.

Additionally, some breathing exercises may also help reduce asthma symptoms. Some examples include:

  • the Buteyko breathing technique, which involves breathing slowly through your nose as opposed to your mouth
  • the Papworth method, which involves using your diaphragm and nose to breathe in a particular way
  • diaphragmatic breathing, which focuses on breathing from the region around your diaphragm as opposed to from your chest
  • yoga breathing techniques, also called pranayama, which involves controlling the duration and timing of each breath

A 2020 publication reviewed 22 studies of breathing exercises that included 2,880 participants with mild to moderate asthma. The reviewers found that breathing exercises had some positive effects on hyperventilation symptoms, although additional research is needed.

The presence of asthma triggers won’t only cause an attack — they can also make your symptoms worse. Be sure to try to get away from things that may be triggering your asthma attack.

For example, if you’re in an area where people are smoking cigarettes, you should move away promptly.

It’s also important to know your triggers. Common triggers include:

Symptoms that indicate that you could be experiencing an asthma attack include:

  • severe shortness of breath
  • tightness or pain in your chest
  • coughing or wheezing
  • fast heart rate
  • lower than normal peak flow score, if you use a peak flow meter

The best way to prevent having an asthma attack is to make sure that your asthma is under control. People with asthma typically use two types of medication:

  • Long-term. This involves medication that you take every day to control airway inflammation and prevent asthma attacks. These medications can include things like inhaled corticosteroids, leukotriene modifiers and long-acting bronchodilators.
  • Quick-relief. This is rescue medication that you take for short-term relief of asthma symptoms. These medications are referred to as short-acting bronchodilators and work to open your airways.

You should also work with your doctor to develop a personalized asthma action plan. This can help you to better understand and control your asthma. An asthma action plan includes:

  • your asthma triggers and how to avoid them
  • how and when to take your medications, both for symptom control and for quick relief
  • indicators of when you’re controlling your asthma well and when you need to seek emergency medical attention

Your family and those close to you should have a copy of your asthma action plan so that they’ll know what to do if you have an asthma attack. Additionally, it may be helpful to keep it on your phone as well, in case you need to reference it quickly.

It’s possible that you may still have some questions regarding asthma attacks. We’ll try to answer some of these now.

How do I open my airways?

If you have asthma, the best way to keep your airways open is to use your asthma medications as directed by your doctor. These medications can open your airways using a variety of mechanisms, including relaxing airway muscles or reducing inflammation.

Long-term control medications can help prevent the airways from narrowing and leading to asthma symptoms. When asthma symptoms do occur, quick-relief medications like your rescue inhaler can help to quickly open your airways.

In addition to using your asthma medications as directed, some other things that may help to open your airways include practicing breathing exercises or trying steam inhalation.

What’s the best body position for an asthma attack?

Generally speaking, sitting up straight is the best position for an asthma attack. This is because sitting up allows air to more effectively enter your lungs while bending over or lying down may constrict your breathing.

A 2017 study investigated lung function in a small group of 20 people with asthma. Lung function was found to be highest when participants were in the standing position, followed by the sitting position. Function was lowest when participants were lying down.

Another 2018 study investigated the effect of body positioning on the lung function of healthy people and those with certain health conditions. In people with lung diseases like asthma, lung function was found to be higher in more erect positions.

What to do if you’re having an attack

We’ve previously discussed what to do if you’re having an asthma attack without your inhaler. Now let’s talk about what to do if you’re experiencing an asthma attack and do have your inhaler.

If you’re having an asthma attack, take the following steps:

  1. Adjust your posture so that you’re sitting upright. Try to stay calm, taking slow, steady breaths.
  2. Take one puff from your rescue inhaler every 30 to 60 seconds. You can take a maximum of 10 puffs.
  3. Call 911 if you begin to feel worse or don’t start to feel better, despite using your rescue inhaler.
  4. If help has not arrived after 15 minutes, repeat Step 2, taking one puff from your rescue inhaler every 30 to 60 seconds, until you’ve taken 10 puffs.

It’s also important to see your doctor after an asthma attack, even if you feel better. It’s possible that your asthma medications or asthma action plan may need to be adjusted. This can help to reduce your chances of having another asthma attack in the future.

If you’re having an asthma attack and don’t have your rescue inhaler on hand, there are several things that you can do, like sitting upright, staying calm, and steadying your breathing.

It’s important to remember that asthma attacks can be very serious and require emergency medical attention. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of a serious asthma attack, like severe shortness of breath, severe wheezing, or difficulty speaking, you should call 911.