1 in 20 people with asthma have severe asthma

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 if you go to A&E

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, with a further quarter having been three or more times. But even if you go to the same hospital every time and know some of the staff, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the treatment you need straight away. In fact, people with severe asthma have told us: 

“Sometimes the doctors don’t know what I’m talking about especially in A&E. People think you can only have asthma if you’re wheezing. I never wheeze. I generally don’t go up to hospital as there isn’t much they can do that I can’t do for myself at home. I only go into hospital as a last resort if I didn’t respond to the nebuliser.” - Julia Kerr, 29 

“I take very detailed notes about my symptoms along to the hospital but they don’t often look at them. They’re always pushed for time.” - Sean Michael, 44 

Four things you can do to get the treatment you need in A&E 

“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 Andrew 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 sooner rather than later.” 

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

  1. Call 999 rather than getting someone to drive you to hospital. You’ll receive treatment quicker, before you even get to hospital.
  2. At your next appointment with your GP or asthma specialist, ask them to write you an emergency action 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. Say something 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 a pen and paper handy so you can communicate even if your asthma symptoms stop you from speaking. Or use your phone to text. 

Make sure you’re prepared for a trip to A&E 

Preparing in advance for an asthma attack will help you feel more confident and relaxed, and help the people around you 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 action plan with a list of all your medications in an obvious place so that you (or a paramedic or friend) can grab it in an emergency.
  • Never delay seeking urgent help because you’re worried about making a fuss or you’re fed up of going to hospital. Getting emergency treatment quickly can make the difference between life and death with asthma attacks. Tragically, three people in the UK die from an asthma attack every day, with nearly half of those (45 per cent) dying before they’ve received emergency medical care. 
  • If you’re taking steroids in the long-term, keep your steroid treatment card with you at all times. 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. 

Here’s what some people with severe asthma told us about how they prepare for an emergency: 

“The instructor and everyone in my Taekwondo class is aware of my asthma, and I’ve shared my written asthma action plan with my husband, children, and a few friends who I train with, 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

“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 medication so should 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 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

Unsure about when to go to A&E? Find helpful advice here.

Any questions about what happens in A&E? Find answers here

Last updated October 2016

Next review due October 2019