If you have severe asthma, or someone close to you does, it’s only natural to worry about whether you can die from the condition.

Asthma, a chronic life-long condition that affects the airways, affects around 235mn people worldwide. It can afflict both adults and children and develop at any time. However, less than 10% of people are affected by severe asthma.

With severe asthma, the symptoms are much worse and can last a lot longer. It’s unpredictable, harder to control and can be difficult to treat, as the symptoms don’t always respond well to standard asthma treatments. As such, severe asthma can be very debilitating and can have a major impact on people’s lives.

Asthma deaths do occur, but in some cases could be avoided with better management of symptoms and by making sensible lifestyle choices.

Can you die from asthma?

If you have a severe asthma attack, it can prevent an adequate supply of oxygen from getting into your lungs and this could result in you stopping breathing. The situation can worsen quickly, especially without prompt medical intervention, which is why a severe asthma attack is regarded as a medical emergency.

In terms of how many people die from asthma, statistics show that about three people every day will suffer an asthma attack death.

According to the National Review of Asthma Deaths, a report produced by the Royal College of Physicians, asthma deaths in the UK are among the highest in Europe. They investigated 195 UK asthma deaths that occurred during one year and found that two in three of the deaths could have been prevented. Amongst the reasons for the asthma attack deaths, 65% of cases were influenced by patient factors that could have been avoided. For example:

  • people who continued to smoke or be exposed to secondhand smoke despite their asthma diagnosis
  • people who didn’t follow asthma advice from their doctors
  • people who failed to attend asthma review appointments.

They also found that 45% died before they’d sought medical assistance or before the emergency medical care could be given. Nearly a quarter of those who died from severe asthma had been to a hospital emergency department due to asthma at least once in the previous year.

Other studies have found that certain factors can increase the risk of asthma attack death, including:

  • Gender – women are more likely than men to die from asthma.
  • Age – research shows that asthma deaths increase the older you get. Adults are also more likely to die from asthma than children.
  • Racial or ethnic groups – African Americans have been found to be two to three times more likely to die from asthma.
  • Location – more asthma-related deaths occur for those in low or lower-middle income countries. Social determinants of health (food, housing, education, income, access to care, etc.) play an important role in asthma outcomes.

What are the warning signs?

Being aware of the warning signs of severe asthma and a severe asthma attack are crucial, so that you can take action quickly.

The symptoms of severe asthma include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • A tight chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain.

Sometimes the symptoms of severe asthma can get worse or more frequent prior to a severe asthma attack occurring. For example, you may find that asthma symptoms are being more disruptive to your daily life or usual activities, or you may be needing to use your inhaler more often than usual. You could also find you are having bad asthma at night.

If you become aware that your usual symptoms are worsening, speak to your doctor or asthma nurse. A review of your medication may be beneficial and a change in regime could help to prevent a severe asthma attack occurring.

If a severe asthma attack does occur, then the key warning signs for you or other people to look for include:

  • Developing a blue tint on the face, lips or fingernails
  • Rapid breathing
  • Extreme shortness of breath – unable to inhale or exhale fully
  • Unable to speak in full sentences
  • Confusion or agitation
  • No relief from using a reliever inhaler.

If these symptoms occur, go to hospital or seek emergency medical attention immediately. A severe asthma attack is a medical emergency. If you don’t seek treatment, your life could be at risk.

Emergency contacts

When you need to call for emergency help, every second counts. Knowing what number to call to summon help is crucial.

If you’re travelling abroad and have asthma, always make a note in advance of what number to call in case a health emergency occurs. To help, here’s a useful reference guide to emergency contact numbers in various countries:

  • In the UK, dial 999
  • In the US or Canada, dial 911
  • In Australia, dial 000
  • In European Union countries, dial 112
  • In New Zealand, dial 111
  • In South Africa, dial 10 177.

You can find a comprehensive list of worldwide emergency contact numbers here.

What action should you take if you or someone you’re with is having an asthma attack?

Most asthma patients will have an asthma action plan in place, which outlines what to do in such an event. However, if you’re not familiar with their plan, or the asthma attack catches you or them off guard, there are a number of practical steps to take to help deal with the situation.

  • Phone the medical emergency number of the country you’re in, or get someone else to phone for you, and ask for an ambulance
  • Remain as calm as you can, as stress can make asthma worse. Be calm and reassuring if you’re with someone who’s having an attack
  • Breathe slowly and deeply, or encourage the person you’re with to do so
  • Sit upright in a comfortable position and loosen any tight clothing – leaning forward slightly may aid breathing during an asthma attack, so try sitting the wrong way round on a chair and lean forward onto its back
  • Use your asthma reliever inhaler (blue) while you wait for help – if there is a spacer to hand, use that to deliver the medication, as a spacer helps the puffs of an inhaler get into the airways more efficiently
  • Stay with the person until help arrives and keep monitoring them. If they seem drowsy or exhausted, it could mean their asthma is getting worse.

Be aware that cold air can make asthma symptoms worse, so avoid taking someone having an asthma attack outside.

Would you like to talk with an expert?

Whether you’ve been newly diagnosed with severe asthma, you’d like more help or want to talk with an expert, take a look at our contact page.

Read our informative severe asthma guide for more details about living and coping with severe asthma.