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Helping someone having an asthma attack

Recognising when someone is having an asthma attack is not always easy.

While most people assume someone who suffers from asthma will be wheezing loudly during an attack, this is not always true.

Many mild or moderate asthma attacks will involve the person wheezing, but if the attack becomes severe, they may no longer be wheezing so you might think it’s something else.

A person suffering a severe asthma attacks can be gasping for breath, anxious, pale, sweaty and clearly stressed. Their lips may be blue and you might see their skin sucking in between their ribs and the base of throat as they struggle to breathe. They may only be able to get out a couple of words between each attempt to breathe.

In such a case, help the person to sit upright, if not already doing so. Quickly establish if they have an asthma puffer or reliever. If they do have one, find it or bring it to them and help them to take 4 puffs of it. (If they have a spacer, use that as it can help deliver the medication more effectively.)

To deliver the puffs, shake the puffer first. Get them to take 1 puff and 4 breaths. Then shake the puffer again and repeat for a total of 4 puffs. (If they cannot do this, then puff directly into their mouth, tell them to breathe in, hold it for 4 seconds, then breathe out.)

Now you need to wait 4 minutes for the medication to take effect. So, it’s a 4, 4, 4 thing.

1 puff with 4 breaths straight after it. Repeat until 4 puffs in total. Wait 4 minutes.

While waiting with the person, keep calm and reassure them so they remain calm too. Don’t leave them alone as they may panic and make the attack worse.

After 4 minutes if they are not fully recovered, repeat the 4 puffs process.

If after this second set of 4 puffs, they still cannot breathe normally, call 000 immediately and say you have an “Asthma Emergency”.

As recent cases of “thunderstorm asthma” have shown, a severe attack can be life-threatening if not treated quickly.

So, knowing how to help someone and being there for them to support them can be life-saving.

Exercise, smoke, illness and animals are some of the other common triggers for an asthma attack.

Many asthma sufferers carry their blue-grey puffers with them and are able to help themselves in the case of an attack. But some severe attacks, particularly in the very young or the elderly, can be very distressing for them and they may panic. Being there for them and knowing what to do is very valuable life skill, they will greatly appreciate you for it.


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