An individual with asthma must contact emergency services if they experience certain symptoms. These include having difficulty walking or talking, developing blue nails or lips, and taking at least 30 breaths per minute.

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects up to 20% of individuals in developed countries.

It causes a person’s airways to narrow and become inflamed in response to specific triggers. When this process suddenly exacerbates, the result is often called an asthma attack.

An asthma attack is a potentially life threatening medical emergency.

This article looks at how to react to an asthma attack. It also explains what emergency responders can do about asthma attacks, insurance coverage, and how an individual can recover from an asthma attack.

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There is no universally accepted protocol for asthma emergencies. However, many sets of sensible guidelines exist that can help an individual respond to an asthma attack.


According to the American Lung Association (ALA), an individual needs emergency medical care if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • taking 30 or more breaths per minute
  • nostrils flaring with each inhale
  • stretching of the skin between the ribs or at the base of the throat when inhaling
  • difficulty walking or talking at a typical pace
  • lips or nails turning blue

Under these circumstances, an individual is experiencing an asthma emergency.

What to do

The ALA recommends that people experiencing an asthma emergency immediately take quick-relief medication, such as albuterol or levalbuterol, which they should always carry with them. People should then make their way to emergency services or call 911.

A person may require assistance with these steps.

Not every asthma exacerbation is an asthma emergency. However, it may not always be easy to tell when this is the case.

The ALA also recommends that an individual immediately call a healthcare professional if they experience any of the following:

An individual should be especially mindful of wheezing if it comes with an unusual breathing pattern or worsens roughly 15 minutes after taking quick-relief medication.

When emergency responders encounter an individual showing signs of an asthma attack, they need to follow certain protocols.

These protocols may vary from place to place. However, a 2019 study presents evidence that the following set of actions may be best:

  • Step 1: Responders gauge the severity of the asthma attack. They may do so by drawing on physical exams, medical tests, and the person’s medical history.
  • Step 2: They use oxygen therapy to correct hypoxemia, where blood oxygen levels are too low, or hypercarbia, where blood carbon dioxide levels are too high. Emergency responders will also try to reduce inflammation and narrowing of the airways using medications such as steroids or bronchodilators.
  • Step 3: Finally, they will work to prevent possible complications of asthma attacks, such as air leaks.

Once emergency responders have taken these steps, they will monitor the person’s condition using a variety of tests.

Emergency responders can have strong evidence that someone is experiencing an asthma attack for the first time.

However, a diagnosis of asthma requires testing that responders will not necessarily have the time or resources to perform.

According to a 2022 review, doctors may need to perform the following tests to make an asthma diagnosis:

Sometimes, an individual may only receive an asthma diagnosis after referral to an asthma specialist. However, general practitioners can often diagnose asthma.

Both Medicare and Medicaid offer coverage for asthma attacks. The same goes for many private insurers, although this coverage could vary significantly between providers.

It is difficult for scientists to estimate the exact costs of emergency room (ER) visits for asthma attacks, with and without various kinds of insurance.

The 2019 study mentioned above details the recovery process following an asthma emergency.

It states that if the ER protocol is successful, medical staff will ensure the individual recovers from relatively common complications of asthma attacks, including:

Medical staff will also want to check whether an individual’s asthma attack resulted from an infection.

If so, recovery will also involve treatment for this condition to prevent another asthma attack from occurring.

Throughout this process, an individual will need to ensure they get adequate rest. Friends and loved ones may be able to help by offering support.

This section answers some commonly asked questions about asthma and urgent care.

Can urgent care treat an asthma attack?

Yes, emergency responders can treat even severe asthma attacks. They will use oxygen therapy to correct blood oxygen levels.

They may also administer medications such as steroids or bronchodilators to reduce the inflammation and narrowing of the airways.

Should people go to the ER for asthma?

Not necessarily. However, an individual should go to ER if they suddenly experience symptoms of severe asthma or if symptoms do not respond to quick-relief medication.

Symptoms that warrant an ER visit include taking 30 or more breaths every minute, having difficulty walking or talking, flaring the nostrils to breathe, and the lips or nails turning blue.

Asthma is a chronic condition that can suddenly worsen. Doctors call this an asthma attack. It results in narrower and inflamed airways, causing breathing difficulties. These can be so severe that some asthma attacks are potentially life threatening.

There are many signs of an asthma emergency. These range from developing blue nails or lips, having difficulty talking or walking, and needing to take at least 30 breaths per minute. People may also experience flaring nostrils or stretching skin when breathing in.

Anyone with symptoms of a severe asthma attack needs to immediately take quick-acting medication before contacting the emergency services.

Emergency responders can treat severe asthma attacks with oxygen therapy, steroids, and other medications. Many health insurance providers can cover some of those costs.