Going to A&E when you have severe asthma

If you have severe asthma, here’s how to make sure you get the treatment you need in an emergency

In an Asthma UK survey, nearly half of people with severe asthma told us they’d been to A&E with their asthma more than 10 times. A further quarter had been three or more times. But even if you go to the same hospital every time and know some of the staff, it can sometimes be difficult to get the treatment you need right away. 

Why A&E teams need more information to treat severe asthma

“A&E staff are trained to deal with all kinds of medical emergencies and follow very clear treatment guidelines when someone comes in with an asthma attack,” says Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s in-house GP. 

“But everyone’s asthma is different and responses to treatment vary. If you have severe asthma, you’ve probably had lots of asthma attacks and have experience of which treatment works for you. The doctors in A&E don’t know you as well as you do, so give them as much information as you can to help them find the best treatment for you as quickly as they can.”

Four ways to to get the severe asthma treatment you need in A&E 

What’s the best way to explain what works for you to the different healthcare professionals in A&E? Dr Andy Whittamore suggests trying these tips: 

  1. Call 999 – never delay seeking urgent help that could save your life. You’ll get treatment more quickly, before you even get to hospital. Don’t get someone to drive you to hospital or put off calling to avoid a fuss or because you’re fed up of going to hospital. Nearly half of the people who die from asthma attacks in the UK lose their lives before they’ve received emergency medical care. 
  2. Get an emergency plan at your next appointment with your GP or asthma specialist. Ask them to write you a plan explaining what your symptoms are like during an asthma attack and which treatment works best for you. Always keep a couple of copies of this plan with you (or take a photo of it on your phone) so you can hand it over when you get to A&E.
  3. Explain you have severe asthma with a phrase like: “I’m not a normal case, I have severe asthma and the usual emergency treatments don’t work for me. This emergency action plan tells you what I need.”
  4. Keep your phone ‘notes’ or a pen and paper handy so you can communicate even if your asthma symptoms stop you from speaking. 

Severe asthma: be prepared for a trip to A&E 

Preparing in advance for an asthma attack will help you feel more confident and relaxed, and help others feel more confident about helping you, too. 

  • Always be prepared for an emergency, even if you feel you’ve found the right combination of medicines to treat your severe asthma and you haven’t been to A&E for a while. This means knowing what to do in an asthma attack and making sure the people around you know what to do, too. 
  • Share your written asthma action plan with your family, close friends and colleagues, or in any situation where your asthma symptoms might be triggered, such as at the gym or on a plane. And make sure they’ll be able to find one quickly if they need to – keep a copy of your asthma action plan with a list of all your medicines in an obvious place so that you (or a paramedic or friend) can grab it in an emergency. 
  • Keep your steroid treatment card with you at all times, if you have one. Anyone taking oral steroids or a high dose of inhaled steroids for more than three weeks should be given a steroid treatment card with the details of your dose and your condition(s) so the doctors in A&E can plan your treatment. 

Tips from people with severe asthma about preparing for an emergency: 

I keep my asthma action plan on my phone, so if I am getting symptoms I hand it over to people who know my PIN number. This is reassuring because if I have an attack, and I’m not able to talk, I can show people my action plan so they know what to do. I also have an overnight ‘asthma bag’ at home which is packed full of clothes, toiletries, books and extra medicines so if I go into hospital, I’ve got everything I need. I like knowing that I’m good to go and it helps to calm my anxiety – because being admitted to hospital can be traumatic.” – Joanne Beecroft, 36

I’ve created a chart on my computer to help me stay organised with my asthma medicines – it helps me to keep track of what doses I need and when to take them. It also includes lists of my allergies and my medical conditions. I’m always updating it and I keep copies in my bag in case of an emergency. If I have an asthma attack when I’m on my own and need to call an ambulance, the paramedics can find my chart easily when they’re looking for my ID. It means they have all the information they need, without me having to explain it to them between gasps.” – Julia Kerr, 29

I’ve shared my written asthma action plan with my husband, children and a few friends I do Taekwondo training with. The instructor and everyone in my Taekwondo class is aware of my asthma so they know what to do if I have an asthma attack. Knowledge is power and I feel reassured that there are always people nearby who can help if I start to get symptoms.” – Jo Simm, 44

Severe asthma: more help to reduce and deal with emergencies


Last updated March 2019

Next review due March 2022