Asthma care in the ambulance

Knowing what happens when you call an ambulance, and on the way to the hospital, can help you feel a bit more prepared and in control.

Health advice > Asthma care in the NHS > Emergency asthma care

“If you’re having an asthma attack and finding it hard to breathe, call 999. We’d rather you call an ambulance, even if it turns out you don’t need it, than not call an ambulance and wish you had.” Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s in-house GP.

Calling an ambulance for an asthma attack

Waiting for the ambulance to arrive

When the ambulance arrives

Arriving at A&E

Calling an ambulance for an asthma attack

When you (or someone with you) calls 999 for an ambulance, you'll get through to someone who can assess how urgently you need help. It's their job to make sure that people who need the most urgent care are seen first.

They can send out the nearest suitable help. This might be an ambulance, if you need to be taken to hospital, or a rapid response vehicle like a motorbike so you can get quick treatment from a paramedic first.

The person on the phone will ask you: 

  • Where you are, including the postcode. It can be helpful to have your address and postcode written down somewhere handy in case someone is making the call for you at home and you’re finding it hard to speak. People may not know your full address, and even if they do it’s easy to forget things in an emergency situation. 
  • What’s happening, and why you need an ambulance. Make sure friends and family know that if your symptoms are getting worse, you can’t breathe and your reliever inhaler isn’t working you’re having an asthma attack.
  • The number you’re calling from. Make sure this is clearly written down somewhere so the person calling on your behalf can give it easily. Again, it’s easy to go blank in a crisis - even if you’re making the call yourself you might forget your own number.

Waiting for the ambulance to arrive

You can stay on the line to get advice and support while you're waiting for the ambulance. They can advise you to take your reliever inhaler, and ask about any symptom changes. And reassure you that an ambulance or paramedic is on the way.

They may also ask you to:

  • open the front door and turn on lights if it’s dark, so it’s easy to find you
  • collect any medicines or medical details (such as your asthma action plan or the name of your GP). This can be helpful for both the ambulance staff and staff in A&E.
  • make sure any pets are safely shut in another room.

When the ambulance arrives

No one wants to think about themselves or someone they love being rushed to hospital in an ambulance for their asthma. But it can be reassuring to know how the ambulance crew will look after you on the way.

Here we answer some of your questions:

Why have they sent a paramedic?  

Asthma is a high priority and if a paramedic on a car, bicycle or motorbike is closer then they may get to you first. This means treatment can be started sooner, before the ambulance arrives.

Is the ambulance crew trained to treat my asthma?

Ambulances are not just for getting you to hospital as quickly as possible. The healthcare professionals on board are trained to treat your asthma symptoms, assess whether you need to be taken to hospital and run tests, or refer you to other services. 

Will the ambulance crew know why I've called?

The crew will know just what they’ve been told by the 999 operator on the phone. So the more information you can give when you call for an ambulance, the better they can help you.

What's the first thing the ambulance crew will do when they arrive?

The crew will need to assess you first. This will include listening to your lung sounds, measuring oxygen levels and if possible, taking a peak flow reading.

If you’re wheezing or having other symptoms suggesting an asthma attack they’ll start treating you with a nebuliser.

Whether they leave quickly to get you to A&E, or take a little more time, depends on how well you respond to treatment.

Will I need to go to hospital if the ambulance crew can treat me at home?

It depends on how bad your asthma attack is. If the crew can control your symptoms easily they may treat you where you are and decide you don't need to go to hospital. But this doesn't often happen. Most people who call 999 for asthma will need to go in the ambulance to hospital.

"If the paramedics don’t take you to hospital, make sure you get a follow-up with your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible," says Dr Andy Whittamore. "If you have had a flare-up of your asthma, you’re at risk of it happening again without the right treatment."

How will they get me into the ambulance if I'm having an asthma attack?

If you're too unwell to walk to the ambulance, they will use a type of chair to carry you. 

What medicines might be used to treat my asthma in the ambulance?

The ambulance crew are trained to give you emergency treatments to deal with your asthma attack. For example, they may give you:

  • a salbutamol nebuliser to open up your airways
  • ipratropium bromide in the nebuliser, which further opens the airways and can help to reduce mucus. They may use this earlier for children.
  • an injection of a steroid called hydrocortisone. This brings down the swelling around your airways and will help you to breathe.
  • an adrenaline injection to open the airways even more if you're having a severe attack.

How will I be transported in the ambulance?

In the ambulance they’ll usually have you sitting upright as this is best for your breathing. This could be either in a chair or a bed. You'll need to wear a seatbelt for the journey.

Depending on how bad your attack is, they may use the lights and sirens to help get you to hospital more quickly.

If they do need to get to hospital quickly, they’ll warn the A&E department that you're coming so they are ready to see you when you arrive.

Will someone else be able to come with me?

You can usually take one friend or relative with you, but that may change if the ambulance crew already has a student paramedic with them. It’s a good idea to ask the crew when they arrive.

Can the ambulance crew contact my family or next of kin?

It depends on the situation. The ambulance crew’s priority is to get you to hospital. Once you’re there, hospital staff will help you contact anyone you need to.

What happens if I’m in charge of children or pets when the attack happens?

If it’s possible, a member of the ambulance crew will help you find a suitable adult to care for the children while you go to hospital. If no other option is available then they'll take the children with you in the ambulance.

Sometimes people are worried about leaving pets too, so the crew will do what they can to make sure any pets are safe and looked after too.

Will the ambulance crew leave my house secure?

Yes, they'll lock up as they leave, and you can usually watch them do this for your own peace of mind.

Arriving at A&E

Once you get to hospital, your care will be transferred from the ambulance crew to the A&E department.

Everyone is assessed in the same way, whether they arrive on their own or by ambulance, to make sure that people who need the most urgent care are seen first.

Read more about what you can expect if you have to go to A & E with your asthma, and if your condition means you have to be admitted into hospital for a bit longer.

Last updated November 2019

Next review due November 2022

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