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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Photo © Gary Otte. All rights reserved.

  • Anna

    I first had asthma form my teenage years, and as young and stupid i kept on smoking, the smoke helps occasionally around an attack but in general makes it worse. I have done Yoga and meditation for years and condition training to increase my lungs ability to take up oxygen, such as running and after 2 years with medication and a few visits to the a and e I became medication free, determined not to go that route again. fool me, now, 12 years later, its back after moving to the UK where air is worse and houses more damp and mouldy, I drew up a chronic inflammation on my vocal cords, And voilà, any slightest cold and I am down for weeks like a huffing and puffing dying 120 year old. The Air, the damp and these old houses are a fall for this beautiful country because they havent been properly looked after :-( I was looking forward to come back but now 18 months later, I am considering if its worth my health.
    What helps, is breathing training, it works miracles, but also, how we live how heathy is our home and clean is our air?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Anna.

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  • Mike

    Anyone ever try holistic treatments?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Such as?

  • Afrocentric

    I have had asthma for the past 5 years. I used to be a runner until I had problems breathing and told my mom. Since then I have seeking for an explanation from my regular doctor, ENT, and allergist as to why u keep getting attacks. Of course all of them give me different answers and tell me to undergo numerous surgeries and I’ll be fine. But I don’t want to have to have those surgeries. So instead, I rely on my albuterol whenever I have an attack. Tonight, however, I released with a shock, that my inhaler was empty and only sent a burning feeling down my throat when I tired using it. I started to panic and cry a little, not sure what to do. It’s very early in the morning and there is a lot of snow on the ground along with ice so transportation was not an option. I looked up ways to help with this and I found this page. While I read each comment, I slowly sipped water and laid on my back on my hard wood floor. By the time I finished the attack had somehow stopped. I had read many times in this article to drink water and perform breathing techniques. This helped me a lot and hopefully now I can go to bed!

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Great, and thanks for sharing.

  • Kirby Reyes

    Another way if you are alone and no one is there to help you and you don’t have any medicine to use.

    Get a bottle of water and sit down. Water Therapy helps a lot to make your phlegm soft.
    I use that method to survive when i was young until now most probably when i don’t have money to buy medicine.

    its just the way how to survive to lessen the pain. Hope it’ll helps.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Kirby.

  • Brett

    Just last night I had a asthma attack and happen to have one of the worst levels of asthma at 12 years old. Thanks to the survival doctor my life jumped of the line of death.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Brett, Glad to help. Comments like that keep me going.

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  • Don Sinclair

    I have suffered from Asthma all my life since birth, around 1954 parents purchased a glass made and rubber pump inhaler from England which was very good in getting relief from one’s Asthma in those days.

    I have used all the different inhalers that have been made available in NZ since 1954, the one I use today is Seretide inhaler 125/25 whch is excellent.
    I only use it once a day just two puffs, I never require Ventolin, in the summertime I also use Fluticasone propionate Na 50mcg to control Hayfever, its very good, two puffs into each nostril once daily.
    I started about three years ago on a treatment called “Oil Pulling” a good friend told me about it, and I must say that this treatment has been just great in control my Asthma.
    It took about three months to ready start working but I found that I was able to drop the use of Ventalin and I can for long periods also drop the use of the Seretide Inhaler.
    I’m retired now from full-time work now, but when I was working I worked at a Freezing Works which required me to be very fit indeed, I beleive the “Oil Pulling practice” allowed my breathing to be excellent.
    The Freezing Works Doctor checked my breathing one day at work, he said I was a good as a very fit 27 year old man in excellent shape, I was 66 years of age.
    I just though this information maybe of interest to those who suffer from Asthma.

    Don Sinclair

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Don, thanks so much for sharing.

  • Coupon Cook

    Unfortunately, I just received a diagnosis of Asthma. I seem to have chemical induced asthma. We have been totally scent free for so long. In our home I can be in a bubble. But out in the world its a different story. Now very suddenly other peoples clothing, perfumes, and even shampoos send me into an attack. I don’t know how else to say I can smell you and you stink to me. Its so bad I can’t let the kids friends come into our home. I’m on day 3 of my asthma action plan because I encountered someones stinky perfume and couldn’t get away. I think I might start wearing a mask in public. I don’t know if any home remedies are going to help me. I have just purchased a slew of vitamins to take at various times of the day. I haven’t had time to evaluate if they will help me or not. Its funny when it comes to other members of my household I can treat them successfully with what they need and see them through the duration of illness. Me on the other hand, I have no idea what I need to get well.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Well, hopefully, your doctor will help. In addition to prescriptions, possibly he/she could recommend a good respiratory therapist for breathing exercises.

  • ladylane

    Thank you so much for the great advice im having an asthma attack as we speak goin on 2 hours stuck at work dont wanna go to the hospital desperately searching for ways to overcome it my inhaler isnt helping . I have an epipen in my purse that was another question i had running through my racing panic ridden mind. Thank you. Life saver !!

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Ladylane, you’re welcome. But, my information is to use when medical help is not available. As you probably know, asthma attacks can be very serious. Perhaps there’s an urgent care center nearby.