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.

  • Eva

    So is this asthma? It starts with my underchin itching, then dry cough, then I have difficulty breathing. I am allergic to ambrosia but not that much, and to nothing else according to the tests, but couple of times when I was out during summer and in the mall couple of times this happened to me. Drinking desloratadine antihistamines helps, less recently, and this morning I took asthma inhaler for the first time because I had difficulty breathing, like heaviness in my chest. It did help, but for hours I was weaker, until noon or something. Thanks for the help! I am 20 years old female, my dad had asthma as a kid.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      There are lung tests that can be done to help decide if it is asthma and the best treatment.

      • Eva

        Thanks, I will be sure to do them asap

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  • JHarder

    I have a awful chest cold and woke up coughing so bad I couldn’t breathe. To best descibe this is that I was coughing out but couldn’t breathe in, I honestly thought i was going to dye. When i finally started breathing I went to the bathroom and my feet were tingly and I was very week. What can i do to help myself breathe if this happens again??

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      You should see a doctor today. Sounds like more than a cold to me.

  • Nancy

    Personnally, I had mild asthma and was able to completely eliminate the need for inhaler by starting to take 12 000 IU of vitamin D3 each day. I only add to this a syrup for congested chest when i get a cold or flu and a bigger dose of vitamin C to help my immune and pulmonary systems to better cope. The research on the effect of vitamin D3 on asthma is very interesting, it really worked for me.

  • sandy

    An accupressure point for asthma attack is about one vertebrae below neck/shoulders on the back.. Press HARD on both sides of the spine for several seconds or even a minute if necessary, and breathing will open for a short time. May be repeated until other meds/inhalers are available. I don’t know exact ‘measurements’ but I’ve seen this work twice.

  • 808 mama

    Great list! I have severe allergies that are the primary cause of my asthma. I really hate taking prescriptions as they don’t seem to be very effective and I believe they have led to worse symptoms for me. Possibly I am allergic to some other ingredients? While I do use my rescue inhaler on occasion as well as antihistamines I try all alternatives first. Mostly my daytime asthma can be managed, but the nighttime attacks seem more sudden and stronger. At night I drink a couple glasses of water and work to slow my breathing and heart rate with exercises. Peppermint oil helps to calm my airways. Coughing out the mucous until it’s thin. Quercitin is also helpful but takes time to kick in so I try to remember to take it before bed. N acetyl cysteine (spelling), grapefruit seed extract, and omega 3s are also good supplements to incorporate regularly. Coffee always helps me a little and takes the attack down a notch, but I don’t want to drink it when I’m woken up at three am and hoping to sleep in the next hour. I keep my windows shut at night and use an air purifier. Dust mite prevention is important. I use coconut oil for oil pulling and raw localhoney. I even swallow a couple tablespoons of coconut oil daily in a recent attempt to see if there is a Candida component to my asthma. I have multiple food, chemical, and airborne allergies and struggle with hives and trying to gain weight. I have the healthiest diet of anyone I know at thirty and I still have attacks sometimes on a nightly basis. I vary detox teas and love using ginger root in a tea. The older I get the more sensitive my breathing and allergies become. I am at high risk for anaphylaxis as I’ve had my tongue and eyelids swell from reactions. I’m just so frustrated that I am up the last two hours forcing my breathing to stop wheezing when I should be sleeping, but on the bright side I did not have to use my albuterol tonight. I just wish I could find a permanent cure so I could do normal things like drink wine and go to the gym again. I still work out at home but the gym is out because I usually end up wheezing and I hate doing that in front of everyone. I’m also less social now because it is nearly impossible to go out to eat or have drinks without having symptoms. Oh ya, am Apple a day really does help and I recommend everyone with asthma have one or two cups of coffee and an apple every day. Well the water, essential oils, and breathing techniques were enough tonight so I’m going to try and sleep again. Why do the worst attacks always wake me at night? Good luck everyone! I hope some of these techniques help you.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks. Have you considered seeing a physician allergist?

  • Wim Hardeman

    Hello, I appreciate the information and would like to share something that helped me a lot, PROPOLIS , this is a bee product and very usefull, took care of my Asthma in 1,5 week, it is know as an natural product since Plato….pls feel free to comment

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks. Propolis is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Perhaps that’s how it helped you.

  • Grant Prairie

    A year ago I went caving, and to my surprise, the camp leader did a demonstration where he had each person in the cave(around 30 or so) light a candle. This quickly triggered my asthma…but I had no inhaler because I left it at the campground. Once I got out of the cave, I got very dizzy and lightheaded. I stumbled as i got up to walk to show them that i needed help. So they carried me 1 mile to the bus. As i was laying down, I noticed that I started to lose feeling in my fingers, and I suddenly was quite cold(this is on a hot bus in 80 degree weather). My vision blurred and I was very light headed, and I still hadn’t caught my breath since I was in the cave. I also felt like I wanted to sleep, but I tried not to simply because I was scared I would go into a coma. Once we got back to the campground, they got me my inhaler and I was ok. I still had difficulty breathing…but I could breath. I went to the bathroom and noticed that I couldn’t feel fluid moving in my body, until about 10 seconds later when I was finally able to urinate. My doctor gave me medical steroids for that next week and a half. Do you think I was near death? Or was my body just going into shock? If you could let me know that’d be great!

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Grant, certainly that could be possible. Or the fast breathing was giving you symptoms of hyperventilation–losing too much CO2. That can make you have similar symptoms.

      • Grant Prairie

        Thanks for the reply! What was strange to me is that I felt somewhat at peace. I didn’t panic. I felt like I was OK with death. So I don’t think I went into shock but im not sure?

        • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

          It’s very hard to say. Certainly people die from asthma every year.

          • Grant Prairie

            Yeah. When I heard them mentioning taking me to the hospital, I actually told them not to. Simply because at the campground I had a rescue inhaler, my steroid inhaler(Advair), and an Eppipen. When I got cold was really the only time I thought death was near.

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