It’s often possible to manage an asthma attack at home with treatment. Usually, this means taking your rescue inhaler. Follow the asthma action plan that you and your doctor put together and take your medications as directed.

If your symptoms don’t improve, you may need to seek emergency medical care. Seek emergency care for an asthma attack if you:

  • have severe shortness of breath or wheezing
  • are unable to speak
  • are straining your chest muscles to breathe
  • experience worsening or no improvement in your symptoms after using your rescue inhaler

If you experience any of the above symptoms, don’t hesitate to go to the hospital right away.

At the hospital, healthcare providers can often treat an asthma attack and discharge you on the same day. In 2016, nearly 1.8 million adults and children visited the emergency department for asthma.

In some cases, a severe asthma attack may require hospital admission. If you have persistent signs and symptoms of a severe asthma attack after 2 to 3 hours of ongoing treatment in the emergency department, it’s likely you’ll be admitted to the hospital for additional treatment and monitoring.

You may be nervous about going to the hospital for emergency asthma treatment, but knowing what to expect can help ease your worries.

Once you arrive at the emergency room, you’ll need to receive treatment right away depending on the severity of the attack. You may receive one of the following treatments:

  • Short-acting beta-agonists like albuterol. These are the same types of medication as your rescue inhaler, but at the hospital, you may be able to take them with a nebulizer. You’ll wear a mask to breathe the medication deep into your lungs for quick relief.
  • Corticosteroids. You can take these in pill form, or they may be given intravenously in severe cases. Corticosteroids will help decrease inflammation in your lungs. It often takes several hours for corticosteroids to start working.
  • Ipratropium (Atrovent HFA). This medication is a bronchodilator that is sometimes used to open your airways if albuterol isn’t effective at getting asthma symptoms under control.

In life threatening circumstances, you may need a breathing tube and oxygen in the hospital. This only occurs if other treatments haven’t worked and your symptoms continue to get worse.

The amount of time you spend in the hospital will depend on how your symptoms respond to emergency treatments.

Once your symptoms improve, your doctor will likely monitor you for a few hours to make sure you don’t experience another attack. Once your symptoms are under control, they can send you home.

But if your symptoms don’t improve after emergency treatment, you may be admitted to the hospital and stay overnight, or for a few days.

In severe, life threatening cases, a person with asthma may need to stay in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Your doctors will continuously monitor your progress, giving you medications and checking your peak flow levels as needed. Doctors may also perform blood tests and X-rays to check your lungs.

Once your doctors determine you’re healthy enough to return home, they’ll supply you with a discharge plan.

This plan typically includes instructions on what medications you need to use and how to use them. You may also receive instructions to help you better recognize your symptoms and know what steps to take if you experience another asthma attack. If you have any questions about your symptoms or treatments, this is a good time to ask.

Within a day or two after leaving the hospital, it’s important to see your doctor for a follow-up appointment. Hospitalization for asthma attacks often means that your usual asthma medications aren’t working effectively for you anymore. Even if you feel fine, it’s important to see your doctor to discuss adjusting your asthma treatments and your asthma action plan.

In an older systematic review from 2009, the authors found that it’s better to see an asthma specialist (allergist or pulmonologist) or go to an asthma clinic after hospitalization rather than a primary care provider. Seeing specialized healthcare providers reduces the likelihood that you’ll need emergency care in the future.

You may be mentally and physically exhausted after you return home from the hospital. After a potentially life threatening experience, it can take days or weeks to recover fully.

Take your time getting back to your normal routine. Rest at home for as long as you can and avoid as many asthma triggers as possible. Ask friends and family to help you with household chores and tasks until you feel better.

It may also be helpful to reach out to an asthma support group. An asthma attack that requires hospitalization can be emotionally draining. It helps to hear from and talk to others who’ve gone through similar situations.

Asthma attacks can be life threatening, so it’s important to know when to head to a hospital for treatment. Knowing the first signs of an asthma attack can help you get the treatment you need sooner. You and your doctor can also adjust your treatment plan to keep your asthma under control and prevent future attacks.