Asthma – what is it?

Asthma is a common lung condition that causes occasional breathing difficulties. It affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood, although it can also develop for the first time in adults. It can be caused by:

  • dust / dust-mites
  • animal fur
  • pollen
  • smoke
  • cold air
  • chest infections

What do we see? 

When someone has an asthma attack their airways constrict and hence reduce their ability to breathe normally. The casualty is likely to feel a shortness in breath, they may be wheezing, coughing, and looking increasingly more anxious.

As a leader operating in the outdoors, hopefully you will be aware of any team members who have asthma and will be alert to this in the first instance.

What do we do about it? 

In the first instance be calm, and be calming. Reassure the casualty that they will be alright.

If the casualty is not already leaning forward, encourage them to do so.

Help them to find their BLUE inhaler. Systematically look through their bag while they search their pockets. Allow them to take as many inhalations as they wish to take.

Note the time.

What may happen?

In the worst case scenario, despite treatment, the attack may persist. If the casualty does not respond to treatment within a couple of minutes, call the emergency services. In extreme circumstances the casualty may collapse unconscious. In this situation, check Airway, check Breathing, call 999 and be prepared to start CPR.

What’s the difference with the inhalers?

Asthmatics can be prescribed two or more types of inhaler. Often you will find that the inhaler for treating an asthma attack is BLUE, but the casualty may also carry a brown or white inhaler. These inhalers are preventive medications and are taken as prescribed on a given frequency. These medications are no good once the casualty has an asthma attack.

Can a first-aider offer someone else’s inhaler to an asthmatic casualty? 

The law is clear that the only medication a first-aider can give, is aspirin, to a casualty who is thought to be having a heart attack. If you choose to offer a casualty who is having an asthma attack a third party inhaler, you may save their life however. Schools are allowed to issue third party inhalers since children can’t always be relied upon to carry their inhaler, or to have it in date.

Image showing HEMs unit assisting Edale Mountain Rescue with a mountain biker who had broken her arm. Peak District, October 2011.

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Texting 999

If you’re reading this now, then do these two steps now (literally could be a life-saver)

i. Download the OS Locate app to your phone. This app will quickly give you your grid reference even without any signal.

ii. Register your mobile phone with the emergency services before an emergency happens. (Important: You will need to register again if you change your mobile phone number).

If an emergency happens you should only use SMS text message to contact the emergency services if you have no other option.  This is because it will take longer than other methods such as calling 999. (You must register with the service beforehand).

Create an SMS message containing the details below:

Which service do you require? Need Ambulance, Coastguard, Fire Rescue, or Mountain Rescue/Police
What? Briefly, what is the problem?
Where? Exactly where is it?
Give the name of road and town / six figure grid reference
Plus more information like: house number; or nearby landmarks or main roads

Do not assume that your message has been received until you get a message back from the emergency service, an SMS ‘Delivery Report’ does not mean your message has been received.

It can take around 2 minutes for you to get a reply to your emergency message. If you have not received a reply within 3 minutes then send another message straight away.


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Will Legon (of works professionally in the outdoors leading groups walking and instructing single pitch rock climbing. Since 2009 Will has been delivering first aid training specialising in outdoor first aid courses. He is an ITC (Immediate Temporary Care) trainer, offering a range of courses accredited by Ofqual and the SQA. In a former life, Will was a maths teacher and an infantry officer in the Territorial Army.

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