Asthma attack without an inhaler — What to do?

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 and it already sounds like you’re helping her manage her asthma. While there isn't a whole lot a bystander can do during an asthma attack, there are a few steps you can take to ease your mind and help your girlfriend breathe easier. Being better informed about asthma and her triggers will help both of you avoid potential allergens, thereby minimizing the chance of an attack. You might also encourage her to create an action plan for what to do if she has one, hopefully providing you both with some peace of mind.

First, it’s helpful to know what might be causing the asthma attacks. Allergies are closely linked asthma. Common allergens (or what triggers allergies) include house dust mites, animal dander, mold, pollen, and cockroach droppings. Allergies are common triggers, but attacks may be brought on by tobacco smoke, stress, physical activity, certain medications, infections, changes in weather (particularly cold temperatures), and acid reflux. Talking with your girlfriend about making a visit with an allergist, a health care provider who specializes in asthma and allergies, may be a good idea. They can help to identify possible triggers if she hasn’t done so already.

If and when your girlfriend forgets to bring her inhaler, there are ways you can help by staying a step ahead: 

  • Help her recognize and avoid asthma triggers. Staying away from these triggers may be one of the surest ways to prevent asthma attacks. 
  • Carry an additional inhaler. 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.
  • Ask her to prepare an asthma action plan. Your girlfriend may want to complete this with a health care professional. It may include who to contact in case of an emergency, what medicines and in what amount are appropriate for certain symptoms, and when additional medical assistance may be necessary. Perhaps she can share a copy with you so that you can get familiar with her needs and have a copy on hand if she needs your help in the case of an attack.

If your girlfriend does have an asthma attack when you’re with her, help her find a place to sit and relax and monitor her breathing exercise. Loosen any tight clothing and don't let her lie down as it can make breathing more difficult. There are also herbal remedies that may help with her breathing, though it’s wise to investigate any potential interactions with other medications she’s taking before using them. And, while these options may help her during an asthma attack, they aren’t intended to replace prescribed medicine or recommendations from health care providers. If her breathing doesn’t improve with any of these measures, call for emergency medical attention — it's better to err on the side of caution and get her help if needed!

Beyond these steps, there are a few additional ways to help your girlfriend stave off attacks. One such action to take: buddy up on healthy lifestyle behaviors! Engaging in regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce the likelihood of asthma attacks. Being active together (as she is able) and encouraging each other is another way you can support her health. Along those lines, consider trying out and adopting stress coping strategies if that is a particular trigger — though it can't hurt to do so regardless! Also, regular cleaning (including laundry and dusting) can help remove allergens and possible triggers as well. Whether you live together or not, keeping a tidy living space keep triggers at bay. Lastly, if you’re observing that her asthma attacks are becoming more frequent, suggesting that she speak with her health care provider may help her get any additional treatment and relief that is necessary.

By investigating ways to help, it’s clear that you’re a supportive partner. Here’s hoping that these tips will have you both breathing easier in the future.

Last updated Nov 04, 2016
Originally published May 09, 2008

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