Asthma is a serious medical condition, responsible for over 1200 deaths per year in the UK and with well over 5 million people receiving treatment for the condition. Despite this, or perhaps because of the high numbers of people on medication, there can sometimes be a perception that it’s not so serious. With 185 people admitted to hospital every day because of the condition though, this simply isn’t true.

What is it?

Asthma is a long-term condition which affects the tubes (airways) inside the lungs that are sensitive to an irritant trigger such as pollen, animals, dust or exercise. When an asthma attack occurs, the airways narrow because they become inflamed and swollen. Mucus can also be produced, meaning that there is even less space in the tubes for air to pass through.

How is it managed?

Some people are prescribed preventer medication. This works by helping to reduce the sensitivity, swelling and inflammation of the airways. Preventer inhalers contain a steroid and come in a number of different colours, depending on the exact medication that has been prescribed. These should be taken regularly everyday as prescribed to keep the airways under control & help prevent an attack. Reliever inhalers are prescribed to control asthma quickly when symptoms occur.

What about an asthma attack?

In an asthma attack, the airways are narrowed and it becomes difficult to get air in and out of the lungs. The patient may be ‘wheezing’ when breathing out and may be distressed. We usually breathe by using our diaphragm and chest muscles, but somebody suffering an asthma attack may also be trying to use their shoulder muscles to make the space inside the chest larger

When somebody is suffering asthma symptoms, they need their reliever inhaler. These are blue for most people, but some people are prescribed a different drug and so will have a different coloured inhaler. The drug contained in the inhaler helps to relax the airways, so should relieve the symptoms.

When is an ambulance needed?

The reliever inhaler should bring asthma symptoms under control. If it’s not effective after 10 puffs of the inhaler or the symptoms are worsening, an ambulance should be called. Difficulty in speaking, eating or sleeping are all signs of a severe attack, for which an ambulance should be called.

Somebody who’s had an asthma attack but recovered should still seek urgent medical advice from their GP or asthma nurse.

How are inhalers administered?

There are several different types of inhaler that are prescribed for emergency use.

First aid for asthmaMetered dose inhalers are probably the most familiar for many people. These require the patient to begin to inhale and then administer a spray of the drug whilst continuing to inhale & hold breath for 10 seconds. This can be complicated and difficult to co-ordinate when the patient is panicked and stressed. A spacer device can help to administer the drug more effectively by removing the need for co-ordination when taking the drug.

Breath actuated inhalers require the patient to inhale deeply. & hold breath for 10 seconds. This then releases a spray of medicine into the airway.

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Dry powder inhalers are prescribed to some people rather than spray inhalers, again it requires the patient to inhale deeply and hold their breath for 10 seconds.

Can anyone get an inhaler?

The blue reliever inhaler contains a drug called salbutamol. This is a prescription only medication in the UK and so is not available for purchase from a chemist unless you have a diagnosis of asthma. There is an exception for schools, where inhalers can be purchased and held as spares in case a child with a diagnosis of asthma needs their inhaler and cannot use their own (e.g. forgotten it or broken it).

Although salbutamol rarely has serious side effects, some people do have severe and life-threatening allergic reactions, so the drug should not be administered to somebody without a diagnosis of asthma, other than by a qualified healthcare professional.

Find out more

There’s more information on recognition and treatment of asthma on the Asthma UK website as well as helpful videos on how to administer inhalers for control of asthma symptoms.

For details of our first aid courses, click here.