The #1 Thing to Do If You're Having an Asthma Attack and Don't Have Your Inhaler, According to Doctors

Woman having asthma attack without inhaler

When you have asthma, you likely know that you shouldn’t leave home without your inhaler. But on a busy morning, it can happen, or you might forget to check how many puffs are left in your canister and run out of medication without realizing it.

In many instances, you’ll likely get through your day without any problems. But other times, you could encounter a trigger that causes an asthma attack and need your inhaler.

“It’s one of our worst nightmares as physicians because we always try to counsel our patients that having your rescue inhaler could actually save your life during an asthma exacerbation,” says Dr. Roma Mehta, MD, a pulmonologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Asthma is a chronic condition that causes inflammation in your airway. During an asthma attack, which can range from mild to severe, the muscles surrounding your bronchial tubes narrow, making it difficult to breathe, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. It can feel like someone is sitting on your chest or like you can’t take a deep breath.

Rescue inhalers deliver fast-acting medication to open your airways when you’re having an asthma attack. So when you don’t have one on hand, it can be a scary situation.

“It’s concerning and you certainly want to have a rescue inhaler available if you can,” says Dr. Jeffrey Demain, MDan immunologist and medical director of Lux Infusion & Immunology in Anchorage, Alaska. “It can be an emergency.”

So what should you do if you have an asthma attack but don’t have an inhaler? Here, doctors share some tips but also emphasize that they’re not a replacement for medical care.

The #1 Thing That Can Help if You're Having an Asthma Attack Without an Inhaler

Most asthma attacks are triggered by exposure to something. It can be an allergen, like pollen or pet dander, smoke, air pollution or fumes, such as from cleaning supplies or strong perfume.

Related: 'An Elephant On Your Chest' and 'Being Trapped Under a Heavy Piece of Furniture'—Here's What An Asthma Attack Actually Feels Like

Some people might be triggered if they have a cold or upper respiratory infection, Dr. Demain says. Stress, alcohol and exercise may also cause asthma attacks for some people.

“If you’re starting to feel symptoms, look around and try to identify what’s triggering you,” he explains.

Then, try to remove yourself from that trigger, Dr. Mehta says. “If someone was cutting grass, go inside. Or stand away from the person wearing the really fragrant perfume.”

Other Things That Can Help During an Asthma Attack

Stay calm

When you feel an asthma attack coming on, do your best to stay calm, Dr. Demain says. “Don’t get overexcited because that’s going to enhance your rapid breathing.”

Related: 'I'm a Pulmonologist, and This Is the Daily Habit I Swear By for Lung Health'

Plus, feeling stressed about the asthma attack, which is understandable, could worsen your symptoms, Dr. Mehta says.

If you can, find a place to sit down and try to count to 10 while taking slow, deep breaths, she adds.

Sit up straight

Sitting or standing up straight can help open your airways and maximize your lung functioning, which is compromised during an asthma attack, Dr. Mehta explains.

Avoid leaning forward, which Dr. Demain says can decrease the amount of air you’re able to move through your lungs.

Try to steady your breathing

While you’re sitting in an upright position, take slow, deep breaths in and out through your nose, Dr. Demain says, explaining, “Breathing in and out through the nose will maintain the moisture in your lungs.”

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The nose can also help filter out some of the particles that you’re breathing which might be worsening your asthma attack, he explains.

Also breathe deeply through your diaphragm, or belly breathing, Dr. Demain says. Another tip is to breathe out through tight, pursed lips, Dr. Mehta says.

Just try to slow short, shallow, fast breathing that can worsen asthma flares, she adds.

Call 911

An asthma attack can rapidly become severe, so it’s a good idea to call 911 just to be safe, Dr. Mehta says. “EMS will have medications that could potentially be lifesaving.”

If you’re a bystander and notice someone struggling to breathe or wheezing, call 911, she adds.

People typically reach for their inhalers when they start to feel symptoms of an asthma attack coming on and don’t wait until they’re in crisis, Dr. Demain says. So seeking immediate help as early as you can is vital when you don’t have your inhaler.

Plan ahead

If you’re in the habit of forgetting your inhaler, create a plan to make sure you remember to bring it with you. Also, pay attention to how many doses you have and get your inhalers refilled frequently, Dr. Demain emphasizes.

Be sure to take any long-term control medications that your doctor prescribes, like corticosteroids, biologics or leukotriene modifiers. Dr. Mehta also recommends using a peak flow meter, a handheld device that measures how well air is flowing out of your lungs.

“Peak flow meters have been shown to detect asthma exacerbations even before you start heaving, having chest tightness, all of those things,” she says. “That’s part of all of my asthma action plans for patients.”

Next, read about everything you need to know about asthma.