Asthma UK urges the 5.4 million Brits with asthma to seek help before an asthma attack strikes, using its new health information

Every three seconds someone in the UK could be having a potentially life-threatening asthma attack, according to new research from Asthma UK.1

The new analysis, based on the lived experience of more than 10,000 people with asthma, reveals that the total number of asthma attacks happening every year in the UK could be more than 10 million -  much higher than other research suggests.2

Asthma UK, which has today launched new asthma attack advice for the 5.4 million people with the respiratory condition, suggests that many asthma attacks could be avoided if those with the condition understood the warning signs that an asthma attack was about to strike - and sought help.

The charity’s research revealed that on average, adults and children with asthma reported having two asthma attacks every year - a much higher number than existing figures suggest. Asthma UK says its findings suggest the need for more research into people’s experience of asthma attacks to ensure that health advice and services are meeting the needs of people with the condition.

Every asthma attack is potentially life-threatening, and three people die from one every day in the UK.3

Asthma is a long-term condition that affects someone’s airways – the tubes that carry air in and out of their lungs - causing them to narrow and making it harder to breathe. More than 77,000 people were admitted to hospital for an asthma attack last year.4

Asthma symptoms can vary over time. For example, cold air, coughs and colds and grass pollen can make symptoms worse. This makes it difficult for people with asthma to assess whether their symptoms are worsening because they’ve temporarily come into contact with a trigger, which they can manage with their reliever inhaler (usually blue), or whether their symptoms are developing into an asthma attack. An actual asthma attack can leave people gasping for breath and at worst can be fatal.

But Asthma UK says that if people need to use their reliever inhaler three or more times a week, are waking up at night because of their asthma and have symptoms such as wheezing or a cough that is worsening or interfering with their work or day-to-day activities, they should contact their GP for advice.

They should be particularly mindful of worsening symptoms if they have previously been prescribed oral steroids for an asthma attack as this means they are more at risk of having another attack in the future.

The best way for people to stay well with their asthma year-round is to take their preventer inhaler (usually brown) every day as it builds up protection in their airways over time preventing them becoming inflamed and susceptible to an asthma attack. Asthma UK offers health advice on its website with warning signs of asthma attacks and what to do if you think you are having one.

Kelly May, 31, a hairdresser from London, says she has had hundreds of asthma attacks since she was a one-year-old.

She said: “Having an asthma attack can feel like being a fish out of water and it’s terrifying. No matter what I do, I can’t catch my breath. I try not to panic but in the back of my mind I know I need to get to A&E or it could be fatal.

“People think that asthma isn’t serious, but I’ve had asthma attacks at work and it’s terrifying for those around me. The aftermath of an asthma attack can also be exhausting and horrible – it can take me weeks until I feel normal again. In winter, I must be especially careful as the slightest cold can land me in hospital fighting for my life.”

Dr Andy Whittamore, Clinical Lead at Asthma UK, says:

“It is shocking to think that every three seconds in the UK someone could be having an asthma attack, a terrifying experience than can cause distress and in some cases prove fatal. Asthma attacks do not come out of the blue and if people recognise the tell-tale signs that an attack is about to strike they can get the help that could save their life.

“We’re urging everyone with asthma to visit our health advice pages so they can understand what to do if an asthma attack is impending or strikes and get medical advice. Find out more at www.asthma.org.uk/asthmaattacks


For more information, please contact Rebecca Lewis on rlewis@asthma.org.uk or call 020 7786 4982 (during office hours) or 07951 721393 (outside of office hours).

Notes to Editors:

  1. Asthma UK conducted an online survey of 10,064 people with asthma across the UK between June and August 2018. We asked people to report how many asthma attacks they’d had in the past 12 months, defining it as if people had one of the following:

- You're too breathless or it's difficult to speak, eat or sleep

- Your breathing is getting faster and it feels like you can't get your breath in properly.

- Your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheeze or tight chest)

- Your reliever isn't helping or the effects lasting over four hours

- Your doctor has given you steroid pills to take because your asthma is so bad.

The calculated average revealed that people with asthma reported having 2 asthma attacks per year. We excluded any respondents who answered more than 52 a year (once per week), as this was deemed unreliable by our experts.

To calculate that someone in the UK has an asthma attack every three seconds we divided the number of seconds in a year (31526000) by the number of asthma attacks in a year (10.8 million) and the result was one asthma attack every 2.92 seconds. 

  1. Ibid. Other clinical data suggests that someone in the UK has an asthma attack every 10 seconds. This is based on the previous definition of an asthma attack, as determined by data from practices in Knowsley and South Gloucestershire CCGs in 2013, supplied by Health Intelligence ltd, that it is when a patient is given a prescription of oral steroids for their asthma. Previous data from 2013, supplied by Health Intelligence ltd, found an estimated 3.07 million prescriptions of oral steroids are issued to people with asthma in a year, an average of one every 10.3 seconds. (average of 0.57 asthma attacks per year per person)
  1. Office for National Statistics (ONS) – England & Wales, Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency (NISRA), National Records of Scotland (NRS); Calculated from 4-year average: 2014-2017
  1. There were 77,855 hospital admissions 2016/17 in the UK for asthma - Data via bespoke request from NHS digital, ISD Scotland, NHS Wales, Northern Ireland Department of Health.

About Asthma UK

  • In the UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma: 1.1 million children (1 in 11) and 4.3 million adults (1 in 12).
  • Every day, the lives of three families are devastated by the death of a loved one to an asthma attack, and tragically two thirds of these deaths are preventable.
  • Asthma UK’s mission is to stop asthma attacks and cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.
  • The Asthma UK Helpline is open weekdays from 9am to 5pm on 0300 222 5800.
  • For more information about asthma please visit www.asthma.org.uk
Asthma + Lung UK's adult asthma action plan - updated 2018

For adults

This plan is designed for adults and children age 12 and over. Fill it in with your GP or asthma nurse. It lists the medicines you need to take every day to stay well, what to do if your asthma gets worse, and what to do in an asthma attack.

Download Adult action plan

Download Welsh Adult action plan