An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms caused by the tightening of muscles around the airways (bronchospasm). During an asthma attack (asthma exacerbation), the airways become swollen and inflamed. The muscles around the airways contract, causing the breathing (bronchial) tubes to narrow.

During an asthma attack, the person may cough, wheeze and have trouble breathing. An asthma attack may be minor, with symptoms that get better with prompt home treatment, or it may be more serious. A severe asthma attack that doesn't improve with home treatment can become a life-threatening emergency.

It is essential to stop an asthma attack and treat it early. The doctor will help design a treatment plan ahead of time to know what to do when the asthma starts getting worse, and how to deal with an asthma attack in progress.


In asthma attack the following symptoms occur:

  • Severe shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, and coughing or wheezing,
  • Low peak expiratory flow (PEF) readings, if you use a peak flow meter,
  • Worsening symptoms despite use of a quick-relief (rescue) inhaler.

The symptoms of an asthma attack vary from person to person. If the asthma symptoms keep getting worse even after you take medication, you may need treatment in the emergency room. The doctor can help you learn to recognize an asthma emergency so that you'll know when to get help.


Asthma attack triggers vary from person to person. Common asthma attack triggers are:

  • Upper respiratory infections,
  • Pollen, pets, mold and dust mites,
  • Inhaling cold, dry air,
  • Tobacco smoke,
  • Exercise,
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

For many people, asthma symptoms get worse with a respiratory infection such as a cold, but sometimes asthma attacks occur with no apparent cause.

Risk factors

A person may be at increased risk of a serious asthma attack if:

  • They had a severe asthma attack in the past,
  • They have previously been admitted to the hospital or had to go to the emergency room for asthma,
  • They use more than two quick-relief (rescue) inhalers a month,
  • They have other chronic health conditions, such as sinusitis or nasal polyps.


Asthma attacks can be serious. They can interrupt everyday activities such as sleep, school, work and exercise, causing a significant impact on the quality of life. They can also disrupt the lives of those around the person having the attacks.

Serious asthma attacks mean it is likely to need emergency room treatment, which can be stressful and costly. A very severe asthma attack can lead to respiratory arrest and even death.


The best way to avoid an asthma attack is to make sure the asthma is well controlled. Preventive medications treat the airway inflammation that causes asthma signs and symptoms. If the asthma symptoms flare up when you have a cold or the flu, take steps to avoid an asthma attack by watching the lung function and symptoms and adjusting the treatment as needed. Be sure to reduce exposure to the allergy triggers. And when exercising in cold weather, wear a face mask. Smoking is absolutely banned.