Asthma attack without an inhaler — what to do?

Originally Published: May 9, 2008
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Dear Alice:

I have a girlfriend with asthma and she has a bad habit of forgetting her inhaler. Inevitably, she'll start having trouble breathing and with trusty inhaler not around, she'll have to resort to her breathing exercises. I'm going to start reminding her to bring her inhaler, but in case we both forget, what are some ways to help a person with asthma when they don't have their inhaler? Are there any other ways to help them breath or should I just stand back while they do their breathing exercises?

Dear Reader,

Asthma or not, your girlfriend is fortunate to have someone who looks out for her health. It already sounds like you are helping to assist her in managing her asthma. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot a bystander can do during an asthma attack. However, there are a few steps you can take to ease your mind and help your girlfriend stay healthy.

First and foremost you can help your girlfriend recognize asthma triggers, so they can be avoided. Staying away from things and places that trigger her asthma may help to prevent asthma attacks.

You mentioned that you try to remind her to bring an inhaler, which is great. One thing to consider is carrying an additional reliever inhaler so that if she forgets hers, you will have a backup. Many people with asthma have extra inhalers that they keep in different places, so consider asking her if she would let you carry one as a backup.

Many people with asthma have an asthma action plan they have been given by a health care professional. You may want to ask your girlfriend if you can see her action plan, so that you know what to do in case of an attack.

If your girlfriend does have an asthma attack when you are out, help her find a place to sit and relax. Loosen any tight clothing (but resist any urges if you're in public!) and don't let her lie down, which can make breathing more difficult. You can also be sure she uses her inhaler, and help her to monitor her breathing exercises. If her breathing does not improve, call an ambulance. It's better to err on the side of caution!

Writing to ask this question shows that you care about your girlfriend and her health. Being supportive of her condition is the most important thing you can do to help her. You mention that she frequently forgets the inhaler, and that can be frustrating for a partner. Although it's easy to get frustrated sometimes, you may want to think about what effect this might have on her, and whether your reaction causes her stress or anxiety. Your coping skills during an asthma attack are as important as hers!

Keep up the good work.

Alice