Asthma attack: Learn First Aid

Adult first aid for someone experiencing an asthma attack including signs and symptoms and what to do in an emergency.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a medical condition that affects the airways – the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. When someone has an asthma attack, these tubes become narrowed, making it difficult to breathe in and out.

Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack

People with asthma should be able to let you know if they are having an attack.

Someone having an asthma attack will have:

  • difficulty breathing and speaking, and may cough and wheeze
  • they may be very anxious and distressed as they struggle to breathe
  • in some cases, their lips, earlobes and nail beds may turn greyish-blue because there isn’t enough oxygen in their body

First aid steps for someone having an asthma attack

1. Help them sit in a comfortable position and take their inhaler.

When someone has an asthma attack, their airways narrow, making it difficult for them to breathe. An inhaler relaxes the muscles, allowing the airways to expand and ease their breathing.


2. Reassure them. If the attack becomes severe, or they don't have their inhaler, call 999.

A mild attack should ease within a few minutes. If it doesn’t, they can continue to take their inhaler. You should call 999 if they they don’t have their inhaler, their inhaler has no effect, they are becoming worse or they become unable to talk. Do not leave them, in case the attack becomes severe quickly. If you can’t call 999, get someone else to do it.  

Watch this British Red Cross first aid video so you can know how to help someone who's having an asthma attack.

Gillian's story will help you learn about asthma symptoms and what to do when someone has difficulty breathing, including when to use an inhaler. Skip to 1:32 for key first aid steps.

Frequently asked questions about asthma first aid

What sort of medication will someone with asthma use?

Someone who has asthma will normally have an inhaler that their doctor has prescribed. They may also have a spacer, which makes the inhaler more effective.

If someone is having an asthma attack they should know how to use their inhaler and spacer but they may need your help in finding them.

What does an inhaler look like? 

Inhalers can come in many different sizes and shapes. Inhalers to relieve asthma attacks are usually blue. Inhalers that prevent asthma attacks may be brown or white.

How do you use an inhaler? 

If a person has asthma they should know how to use their inhaler, they may need your help getting it for them. They should take it as normal. If that doesn’t help they can take one or two puffs every 30 or 60 seconds until they’ve had 10 puffs.  

If they have a personal asthma plan they should follow this and seek medical advice if necessary. 

What is a spacer?

A spacer is a hollow cylinder that attaches to an inhaler. It can help a person having an asthma attack take their medication more effectively. A baby or child having an asthma attack should use a spacer to help them take their medication.

When should I call 999?

Call 999 if they:

  • are having their first attack
  • stop breathing
  • are finding it difficult to talk or make a noise
  • are becoming exhausted
  • aren’t helped by their inhaler
  • don’t have any asthma medication with them
  • get worse.

What if they stop breathing? 

Find out:


If you have any other questions about first aid for someone who is having an asthma attack, visit the NHS website. During life-threatening emergencies, call 999, or for non-emergency medical help, call 111.

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