Fatal Asthma: Am I at Risk for a Fatal Asthma Attack?

Identifiying & Preventing Fatal Asthma

Woman using Asthma inhaler in garden
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Fatal asthma is a significant problem with more than 10 Americans dying each day.

Even though death rates have declined by more than 25% since 1999, any asthma death is potentially preventable. Women are responsible for two-thirds of all asthma deaths and African-American women of the highest death rate for asthma among all groups of patients with asthma. African-Americans, in general, are 3 times more likely to die from asthma compared to other groups.

Never Ignore the Severity of an Asthma Exacerbation

Determining your risk for a fatal asthma attack is important. Only 33% of asthma deaths occur in the hospital -- which means many asthma patients who die are either not seeking care or are not being hospitalized with their worsening asthma. Asthma and every attack have the potential to be life threatening. Fatal asthma can occur in anyone with mild intermittent to more severe asthma.

Patients at high risk of asthma-related death require intensive education and special care. Make sure you know if you are in one of the increased risk groups discussed below.

Importantly, 80 to 85% who die from asthma develop progressive symptoms anywhere from 12 hours to several weeks before death. Only 15 to 20% die in less than 6 hours after developing symptoms. Thus, the vast majority of patients dying from asthma developed symptoms in a time frame that would have allowed them to seek appropriate medical care.

Risk Factors for Asthma-Related Death

All of the following are risk factors for asthma-related death:

  • Previous history of a near-fatal asthma event
  • Recent poorly controlled asthma with increased shortness of breath, nocturnal awakenings, and rescue inhaler use
  • Prior severe asthma exacerbation where you were intubated or admitted to an intensive care unit.
  • Two or more asthma-related hospital admissions or three or more visits to the emergency room for asthma
  • Using 2 or more canisters of your short-acting bronchodilator like albuterol in a month
  • If you have trouble identifying when your asthma symptoms are worsening or you are having an asthma attack
  • Being poor and from the inner city
  • Substance abuse
  • Significant psychiatric disease
  • Other significant medical problems like a heart attack and other lung diseases

Good Care and Education Decreases Fatal Asthma

If you are at increased risk then you need to make sure that you understand the signs and symptoms of worsening asthma and monitor your symptoms regularly. Most asthma fatalities occur after days of symptoms and it is rarely a sudden event. While it occurs asthma fatalities after only minutes or hours of symptoms are uncommon.

One of the things that distinguishes people who die from asthma from those who recover is knowing when to seek emergency care. While some people are not as impacted by or perceive the shortness of breath caused by as asthma attack as others, other people ignore symptoms because they remember times when they had severe symptoms and recovered with self-care.

Others are just not aware that asthma can be fatal. Finally, some people rely on short-acting rescue inhalers or have deficient family support systems. All of these barriers are remediable with education and action taking.

What Do I Do if I am at Increased Risk?

All of the following may help you reduce your risk of an asthma-related death:

  • Know that you are at risk
  • Know your asthma action plan
  • Make sure you understand your asthma action plan
  • Use your asthma action plan
  • Use your peak flow meter regularly
  • Do not delay seeking emergency care if your symptoms worsen
  • Tell your asthma care provider that you are at increased risk of an asthma-related death
  • Make sure you can effectively communicate with an asthma care provider

What Can I Do To Help Your Asthma?

In order to help with your asthma problems, I need to learn more about your asthma.  Help me learn about the asthma problems our community is facing by taking our survey and letting me know your biggest asthma problem. 

But I've Got Questions?

I am here to help! Email me your asthma questions.

There a few ground rules that we need to make clear first.  I want you to bet the best asthma care, but I am not your doctor. We do not have a treatment relationship so I cannot provide you with care and O do not provide treatment over the internet or via email.  Any information I provide you should be considered informational for your own personal education. Think of our communication as a way to have a more informed conversation with your healthcare provider.  I cannot always answer all questions, but try to do the best I can.

Want To Join An Asthma Community?

Our free online asthma Facebook community is a great place to connect with other patients and parents with asthma. Parents and patients ask questions and share what is going on in their asthma lives

Please share this article with your social network using one of the social sharing buttons if you found it helpful.


  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Accessed: March 27, 2016. Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma
  2. Identifying Patients at Risk for Fatal Asthma. UptoDate. Accessed March 27, 2016.
  3. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Asthma Facts and Figures. Accessed March 27, 2016.
  4. American Lung Association. Trends in Asthma in Mortality and Morbidity. Accessed March 27, 2016.

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