Asthma Attack Without an Inhaler: 9 Potential Lifesavers

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Asthma Attack Without an Inhaler: 9 Steps That Could Save Your Life

Coffee pouring into a clay mug

Coffee and tea contain a chemical similar to the old asthma medicine theophylline. The amount may be too small to do much prevention, but they could be worth a try. (See step 7.)

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

I’ve never had a patient die of an asthma attack while I’m treating them, but a few have come close. I’ll never forget their desperate looks, their not being able to breath in enough air, and the relief that comes over them (and me) get when the attack is over.

Although asthma is a serious disease (over 3,000 asthmatics die in the U.S. each year), I see fewer and fewer people having severe attacks these days because of the array of excellent medications available. But what would you do if you had an asthma attack without an inhaler? What steps could you take to prevent or treat one when all the prescription medicines were gone?

Sonya asked it another way on my Facebook page: “Are there any natural cures for asthma flair-ups?”

The short answer is there’s nothing natural that works as well as prescription medicines for asthma. Over-the-counter Primatene Mist used to be a sort-of alternative—fraught with side effects—but it’s off the market.

Even so, there are a few things that may help. Here are nine suggestions for how to prevent or treat an asthma attack without an inhaler. You need to start preparing now.

1. Know what triggers your attacks.

  • Smoking is a given. You must stop, and avoid secondhand smoke if at all possible.
  • Allergies are another big trigger. Find what you’re allergic to and avoid it. Allergy medicines may help prevent an attack. One that’s often overlooked but effective is the over-the-counter nasal inhaler chromolyn sodium (NasalCrom). Oral antihistamines can also help, but they can dry up the mucus-membrane lining of your lungs too much and make some people’s asthma worse. As always, check with your doctor.
  • Exercise is a common trigger. Warming up slowly may help.
  • Emotional stress can be a trigger. Learn relaxation techniques.

2. Learn breathing techniques. There’s promising evidence from some small studies that proper-breathing exercises may help prevent attacks. These techniques take days to weeks to learn properly. Check with your doctor for guidance. The three generally recommended are:

  • Buteyko technique
  • Papworth method
  • Pranayama yoga breathing

3. Maintain a healthy weight, and exercise regularly. Both have been shown to help prevent attacks.

4. Eat fruits and vegetables for antioxidants that can boast your immunity, and fish or fish oil for its anti-inflammatory effect.

5. Drink plenty of water to keep the lining of your lungs hydrated.

6. Cover your nose and mouth around smoke and other air irritants, and in cold weather.

7. Consider drinking coffee or tea. Both contain a chemical similar to the old asthma medicine theophylline. (These days, there’s usually better medicine with fewer side effects, but theophylline worked.) Many doctors deduce, however, that the amounts in these drinks are too small to do much good, but seems to me they’re worth a try. Don’t go overboard. You’re probably drinking a cup or two a day already, and that’s plenty.

8. Store the over-the-counter oral decongestant pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). It may help during an attack. Be sure to know its potential side effects, such as increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, and causing urinary problems in anyone with an enlarged prostate.

9. Here’s a must. Keep epinephrine, like an Epipen, on hand. Sure it works for allergic reactions, but it works for asthma attacks without an inhaler too. Of course, get to a medical facility, but if that’s not possible, have epinephrine around for emergencies. If all else fails, it could be a lifesaver.

Please, ask your doctor before trying any of these things. Never use these as an alternative to prescription medicines. Don’t risk your life.

If you’ve tried the breathing exercises, I’d love to know how they’ve worked for you—that and any further suggestions to deal with an asthma attack without an inhaler that I’ve left off.

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