Asthma symptoms getting worse

What it means when your asthma symptoms get worse and what you can do to feel better

Early warning signs your asthma is worse and you’re at risk of an asthma attack

  • You need to use your reliever inhaler (usually blue) three times a week or more because of your asthma symptoms
  • Your symptoms are coming back – tightness in your chest, feeling breathless, coughing and/or wheezing
  • You’re waking up at night because of your asthma
  • Your symptoms are getting in the way of your day-to-day life – like work, family life or exercise
If your reliever inhaler (usually blue) isn’t helping or you need to use it more than every four hours, you’re having an asthma attack. Act now.

Get better: see your doctor within 24 hours

If you’re experiencing these early warning signs, you’re at risk of having asthma attack in the next few days.

Luckily, you’ve spotted your asthma getting worse. If you see a doctor or nurse now, they’ll help cut your risk of an asthma attack.

If you can’t get an appointment with your GP surgery in the next day, then go to a walk-in-centre or call 111 to ask if they can get you a slot at a local surgery or walk in centre.

It might seem like a hassle, but in the long run it’s less stressful for you and your family than having to go to A&E struggling to breathe.  

Reasons why your asthma is bad

“More asthma symptoms are a sign that your airways are getting more inflamed and narrower,” says Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s Clinical Lead and in-house GP. “This makes it harder and harder for air to get through and an asthma attack more and more likely.”

There are lots of reasons why your airways might be swelling up, but they can all be dealt with by you and your doctor: 

Not taking preventer inhalers or medicines

Preventer medicines reduce swelling by soothing inflammation in your airways, when you take them as prescribed. They can take up to two weeks to build up full protection levels, and then you need to keep that topped up.

If you’ve not been taking yours, inflammation might have built up and made your airways swell up. Set a reminder on your phone to get back into the habit. Find out how preventer medicines work.

Not taking your inhalers correctly

“The wrong inhaler technique could mean less medicine gets to your lungs where it’s needed – which could explain why you’re getting symptoms,” says Dr Andy.  

Even if you’ve been taking an inhaler for years, it’s easy to slip into bad habits. Checking your technique is easy though – watch our inhaler videos to see if you’re doing it right.

More or new triggers

Maybe you’ve caught a cold, it’s pollen season, or you’ve moved to a new house where there’s mould or dust mites. These or a new trigger – or more of an old one – could be causing your airways trouble.

Tell your doctor if you’ve spotted a new trigger. They can help you deal with it.

Your medicine needs tweaking

There are lots of types of inhalers, so yours might not be quite right for you. You might need:

  • a different dose of medicine
  • a device that’s simpler to use
  • or a different type of medicine.

When you see your doctor, they might suggest changing your medicine to deal with your worsening symptoms. Read our tips for getting used to new inhalers and medicines.

Can asthma get worse with age?

“Some people do notice their asthma changing with time, but it doesn’t mean your asthma is just going to get steadily worse as you get older,” says Dr Andy. “It usually means something different has come along and made your airways more inflamed.”

This might be because of hormonal changes like pregnancy or menopause, weight gain, stress or another reason like meeting a new trigger. Talk to your doctor for ideas to get your asthma symptoms under control again.

If you have lots of asthma attacks, there’s a risk of your airways getting damaged and narrow for good. This can make your symptoms worse and can’t be reversed. You can avoid this by talking to your doctor about getting your asthma under control.

How your doctor can help

There are lots of things your doctor can do to help reduce your symptoms. Work with them to put a plan in place so you can get back to sleeping well, working, enjoying exercise and playing with your kids.

Your doctor might:

  • Treat your triggers – maybe you need help dealing with allergies that are making your asthma worse. That might mean taking antihistamine tablets.
  • Give you new medicines to try – they might suggest that trying a new inhaler or treatment could improve your symptoms.
  • Suggest increasing your preventer dose – they might decide a little extra medicine will help get you through this rough patch.
  • Prescribe you oral steroid tablets – if they think you need some extra help to get rid of your symptoms.
  • Ask you to take higher doses of your reliever inhaler for a while – your GP will explain how much, and when.
  • Give you a personal asthma action plan – on it they’ll tell you exactly how to deal with your symptoms getting worse now and in the future. You could download an action plan yourself and take it with you to make sure you get one. 

Tips for getting the best out of your doctor

  1. If you’re worried about explaining your symptoms to the doctor, try keeping notes on your phone or even filming yourself coughing.
  2. If you have trouble remembering to take your preventer – tell them! In the end, you’re the one who has to manage your asthma every day so have an honest conversation about how difficult this can be and see how they can help.
  3. Take an action plan with you to structure the conversation with the doctor. If you go through each section of it, you’ll know everything you need to know by the end of the appointment

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.

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