What an asthma attack feels like, for those who have never had one.

I’ve suffered from severe asthma since I was three years old.

Countless attacks, doctors appointments, and hospitalisations later –  I like to think I know a thing or two about the lung condition that affects around 2.5 million Aussies.

An asthma attack is terrifying. At 22, I still struggle to keep my anxiety under control when I feel my chest tighten. Yet millions of lucky Australians will go their entire lives without ever experiencing the chronic illness that has changed my life.

This explanation is for those people.

It’s bushfire season, and the sky is tinged orange with soft, billowing smoke in the distance.

I can feel an all too familiar tension creeping up the back of my throat, and reach into my handbag for my inhaler. I shake it. It’s empty.

Please, please, just have something.

I press the silver button and a sickly puff of air escapes the chamber.

Oh no.

I begin to frantically search for my spare. Is it in my car? The medicine cabinet? Under my bed? Did I leave it at work?

I have five of these damn things. And I can’t find any of them.

I try to keep my breathing even and controlled as I scurry around the apartment. Keep calm, Michelle. Keeping calm is everything. You’ve been here so many times before. Just be quiet and calm.


It feels like hands are wrapping around my airway, slowly clenching and squeezing so my body is deprived of air.

I can’t breathe properly. Oh god I can’t breathe properly.

 I can't breathe properly. Oh god I can't breathe properly. (Image: iStock)

My boyfriend is asking me what's wrong but I can't talk - there's not enough air to talk. Where the f*ck is my inhaler? The mythical hands inside my throat secure as I rummage under the couch and dive into the crevices of the cushions, my fingers grazing nothing but crumbs and lost bobby pins.


It feels like someone is standing on my chest.

I cough forcefully to relieve my tense muscles. In a brief, fleeting burst, it helps, and I take a gulp of air. I cough again. And again. Harder each time. I feel the veins in my neck bulge with each loud, desperate cough. My chest hurts but I don't have any other option.

Mitch hands me my spare Ventolin inhaler - it was in my bedside table the entire time. I fall onto the couch and press down, sucking in the much needed medicine.

I take four puffs and wait for the tension to be released.

Nothing changes.

I take another four.


I can't breathe and my medication isn't working and I can't breathe.

Big tears begin to well up in my eyes. I see the panic painted across Mitch's face. My chest feels like it's dying. I clutch at it instinctively because I don't know what else to do.

I close my eyes and do everything I can to inhale through my nose while Mitch races around, grabbing everything we'll need for the hospital. My mind is racing. I put my head between my legs. Mitch keeps speaking to me but all I can think about is my lungs. If I could speak, I'd calmly say my lungs aren't working. They're just not working. I need air. Can you please do something to get me air? I'm starting to feel dizzy. There are black dots everywhere.


Now I panic. Really panic. I need my lungs to work again so I breathe as fast and as deep as I can. Faster and faster and faster.

Pins and needles spread across my body and my legs and arms become stiff. I hear my own breathing - wheezy, rapid - and it only makes everything worse. I'm hyperventilating and I can't stop. I need air. I really need air.

I can't breathe.


Unfortunately, this is the state precise in which I've been discovered by paramedics before - curled in a ball on the floor, hyperventilating like a mad woman. Normally, they put a high-powered oxygen mask on my face and loudly demand I calm down; something that works remarkably well.

Other times, I've fallen unconscious on the couch. Or collapsed the moment my mother ushered me into the emergency department.

While asthma comes in varying degrees of severity, very few things are as terrifying as a full blown attack.

The anxiety that sets in when you can't breathe properly is something non-sufferers will never understand.

And god, I count those people so lucky.

You can find out more about Asthma and get support here.