Asthma – first aid

Even with the best efforts to manage asthma well, there are sometimes situations that need urgent first aid for asthma symptoms.

An asthma attack is an emergency – act quickly
  • An asthma attack can take anything from a few minutes to a few days to develop. 
  • During an asthma attack, a person gets short of breath and has tightness in their chest.
  • They will also be coughing, wheezing or breathless.
  • Symptoms can quickly worsen so it's important to act quickly. 
  • The treatment depends on the age of the person and whether the attack is mild, moderate or severe.

If a young child 5 years or younger is having an asthma attack

If an older child, teenager or adult is having an asthma attack

Children 5 years and older, teenagers and adults

If someone is having an asthma attack, follow the 'ASTHMA' acronym

A = Assess

Assess how severe the asthma attack is:

  • Mild – the person is short of breath, wheezing and coughing and has chest tightness.
  • Moderate – the person may have loud wheeze, breathing difficulty and can only speak in short sentences.
  • Severe – the person is distressed, gasping for breath, having difficulty speaking two words and is blue around the mouth. 

If the person has severe asthma or is frightened, call an ambulance on 111.

S = Sit

Sit the person upright and stay with them. Reassure them calmly.

T = Treat 

With reliever inhalers: Symbicort, Vannair, DuoResp Spiromax, Ventolin, Respigen, SalAir or Bricanyl.

Image: Asthma Foundation NZ

Treatment depends on how severe the asthma attack is

(Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ)

H = Help

If the person is not improving, call an ambulance immediately on 111. Continue to use the reliever inhaler every few minutes until help arrives. 

M = Monitor

If the person is improving, keep monitoring them. If necessary, repeat doses of the reliever inhaler. 
If the person is not improving, continue to use the reliever inhaler every few minutes until help arrives. 

A = All OK!

When the person is free of wheeze, cough or breathlessness, they can return to quiet activity.

If symptoms recur, repeat treatment and rest. It is important to always see a doctor after an asthma attack.

Asthma Emergency - First Aid

(Asthma New Zealand, 2020)

Learn more

The following links has more information about asthma first aid.  

Asthma action plans – adults 
Asthma action plans – children 
Asthma emergency action plan for children 5 years of age and under Asthma NZ and the Lung Association, NZ


  1. Asthma first aid Asthma and Respiratory Foundation, NZ
  2. What to do in an asthma emergency Asthma NZ

Reviewed by

Teresa Demetriou is the head of education and research at the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ and co-author of the Child and Adolescent Asthma Guidelines. As a registered nurse with a wide range of experience in primary health, respiratory healthcare and education, she is responsible for ensuring that evidence-based best practice is implemented into all of the Foundation’s training, guidelines and resources.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Teresa Demetriou, Asthma & Respiratory Foundation NZ Last reviewed: 03 Dec 2018