What to do if your asthma’s getting worse

If you notice your asthma symptoms getting worse see your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible

Having an asthma attack? 

If you’re experiencing any of the following, please visit our asthma attack page:

  • Your reliever inhaler (usually blue) is not helping to relieve symptoms
  • Your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheeze or tight chest)
  • You’re too breathless to speak, eat or sleep.

Signs that your asthma is getting worse

Specialist asthma nurse Suzanne talks through some typical signs that your asthma is getting worse and what to do about it.

Video: Signs that your asthma is getting worse

Specialist asthma nurse Suzanne talks through some typical signs that your asthma is getting worse and what to do about it.
Transcript for ‘Signs that your asthma is getting worse’

0:00 Asthma attacks rarely happen out of the blue.

0:03 They often take a few days to build up.

0:07 Asthma is different for everybody.

0:10 By learning how to recognise when your asthma symptoms are getting worse,

0:14 it’ll help you to stay in control.

0:18 So, signs that your asthma is getting worse are variable.

0:23 The most common sort of signs are you may feel some wheezing,

0:26 you may have a cough, you may find a tightness in your chest.

0:32 If you keep a peak flow diary, you may find that your peak flow scores are reducing a bit.

0:38 You may also find that you’re using your blue reliever inhaler more frequently than you usually would.

0:45 If your symptoms continue to be worse and you’re using your blue inhaler a lot,

0:52 then please do call us on the helpline or contact us by email,

0:56 especially if you’re not sure what to do next.

0:59 We can discuss what’s been going on with you

1:01 and make a plan for a way forward.

1:05 If you are using your preventer inhaler as prescribed,

1:09 every day, even when you’re well and using really good inhaler technique,

1:14 and despite this, your asthma symptoms are getting worse,

1:18 it’s a good idea to see your GP.

Related resources
Written Adult Asthma Action Plan - close-up

Adult action plan

Using an asthma action plan will help you to stay well. Download and fill in with your GP.

Download (951 KB)

Don’t let asthma symptoms build up

For a small number of people, asthma symptoms can come on quickly. But for most people, symptoms rarely just come ‘out of the blue’. They build up gradually over a few days.

Studies shows that symptoms often rapidly increase two or three days before an asthma attack

So it’s very important to be able to spot the common signs that show asthma’s getting worse. If you get help quickly, you’re more likely to prevent what could be a life-threatening asthma attack.

Make sure you know the common signs that your asthma is getting worse. Don’t ignore them. 

Signs your asthma is getting worse

These are the common signs that asthma is getting worse: 

  • Using more of your blue reliever inhaler than usual
  • Waking in the night with coughing or wheezing
  • Coughing or wheezing more during the day
  • Feeling short of breath or tight in the chest
  • A drop in your peak flow readings.

You might also notice:

  • Having to take time off work, school or college because of your asthma
  • Feeling that you can’t keep up with your normal activities or exercise
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Getting breathless climbing stairs or going up hills
  • Not being able to walk as far or as fast as usual, or being breathless when you do.

Being able to spot when your symptoms are getting worse gives you a life-saving window of opportunity to prevent an asthma attack. 

Use your written asthma action plan to help you. It tells you what to look out for and what you need to do if you notice symptoms. 

What to do if your symptoms are getting worse

  1. Make an appointment to see your GP or asthma nurse within 24 hours.
  2. Follow the advice on your written asthma action plan. If you don’t have one, download one and fill it in with your GP or asthma nurse when you go for your appointment.
  3. Take a rescue course of steroid tablets (prednisolone) if it’s written on your asthma action plan and you’ve been given a course to keep at home.
  4. Avoid your asthma triggers as much as possible.

Maybe you don’t think your symptoms are serious enough – perhaps you’ve got used to feeling breathless a lot, or it doesn't seem unusual to you to wake up at night coughing.

But you don’t need to put up with symptoms. And it’s important to get checked out as soon as possible to make sure you’re not at risk of an asthma attack. 

You can also call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 to talk things through with one of our expert asthma nurses.

How your GP can help asthma symptoms

If your symptoms are getting worse you should go to see your GP or asthma nurse to get your asthma checked.

They will ask you about your symptoms and how you’re feeling. They may listen to your chest and check your peak flow to see how it compares to normal.

They should also talk to you about how often you take your medicines, and check your inhaler technique.

Sometimes it may be necessary to increase the dose of your preventer inhaler to help you manage your asthma better.

Or you may need an add-on treatment for extra help. For example, your GP may suggest an LTRA (leukotriene receptor antagonist) tablet, or a combination inhaler.

Sometimes when asthma gets worse it’s necessary to treat the inflammation in your airways with a short "rescue" course of steroid tablets. These are called prednisolone. You may have been given a pack of these to keep at home with instructions on when to use them written on your action plan.

If you’re prescribed a new medicine, or if the dose of your usual medicine has changed, make sure you have a follow up appointment four to eight weeks later.

This is so you can talk to your GP or asthma nurse about how you’ve been getting on, and check these are the right treatments for you. 

Managing your asthma going forward 

The good news is that with the right care and treatment, most people are able to get on with their lives without asthma symptoms getting in the way. 

Your GP will always try to give you the least amount of medicine possible to keep you well. So go for your annual asthma review to check you’re taking the right amount of medicine for you.

Once your asthma has been well managed for at least three months, your asthma nurse or GP may suggest reducing your medicine.

Reducing medicine should be done gradually and if symptoms return you should increase your treatment again.


Last updated April 2018

Next review due March 2019