Asthma Action Plans

Last updated by Peer reviewed by Dr Colin Tidy
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Synonym: self-management plan or programme; 'action plan' is often used in preference as it is perceived as less daunting to patients and more engaging to children, parents and carers

Asthma is a chronic condition where optimal control is obtained by stepping treatment up or down in line with clinical signs and symptoms.

Ideally, patients should be empowered with previous advice from health professionals to:

  • Recognise worsening asthma.
  • Be able to self-initiate therapeutic adjustments.
  • Know how and when to access the medical system.

There is good evidence for the efficacy of asthma action plans:[1, 2, 3]

  • As part of self-management education, action plans improve health outcomes in adults with asthma. Outcomes examined include hospital admissions, emergency medical contacts, days missed from work, nocturnal asthma symptoms and quality of life.[4]
  • The evidence is strongest in those with the most severe disease, following management in secondary care and in those with recent exacerbations.
  • There is a relative lack of evidence in primary care.
  • A meta-analysis of self-management in children and adolescents (2-18 years) also showed improved lung function and reduction both in morbidity and utilisation of healthcare resources.[5]

All people with asthma (and/or their parents or carers) should be offered self-management education which should include a written personalised asthma action plan (PAAP) and be supported by regular professional review. An asthma action plan is a written plan is an essential component of effective self-management education. One systematic review identified the features of asthma action plans associated with beneficial outcomes as including:[6]

  • Specific advice about recognising loss of asthma control, assessed by symptoms (such as asthma attacks) or peak flows or both.
  • In children, symptom-based written plans are effective in reducing emergency consultations for asthma, although (in older children) peak flow-based plans may be as effective for other outcomes.
  • Actions, summarised as two or three action points, to take if asthma deteriorates, including seeking emergency help, starting oral steroids (which may include provision of an emergency course of steroid tablets), restarting or temporarily increasing inhaled corticosteroid, as appropriate to clinical severity.

In adults, written personalised asthma action plans may be based on symptoms and/or peak flows: symptom-based plans are generally preferable for children. One widely used PAAP is produced by Asthma UK.[7]

The National Review of Asthma Deaths found that of the 195 deaths reviewed, only 23% of the patients had been provided with an asthma plan. One of the recommendations made was that every patient with asthma should have a PAAP.[8]

There is inevitably wide variation in education/self-management programmes and, whilst there is evidence supporting the efficacy of these types of programme in general, there is no individual component that has been shown to be effective in isolation. Successful components include:[10]

  • Structured education, reinforced with written personal action plans.
    Core content for educational programme or discussion[6]
    • Nature of disease.
    • Nature of treatment.
    • Patient's treatment goals.
    • How to use treatment.
    • Skills for self-monitoring.
    • Negotiation of the asthma action plan.
    • Recognising and managing acute exacerbations.
    • Avoiding triggers.
  • Specific advice as to how to recognise loss of asthma control. Action points can be symptom or peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) triggered. In children, there is some evidence that symptom triggers are preferable.[11] When based upon peak flow, percentage personal best PEFR (assessed once treatment has been optimised, and updated regularly) should be the trigger for action rather than percentage predicted PEFR.
  • Written instructions - traffic light systems are sometimes used.[7]
  • Two to three action points - no clear advantage to having more.
  • Specific advice as to the action to take if asthma deteriorates:
    • NICE advises that, for those who do not need admission, we consider quadrupling the dose of inhaled corticosteriods at the onset of an asthma attack. This may reduce the risk of needing prescribed oral steroids, and is something that patients can do at home whilst waiting for medical attention.[2]
    • Other advice on an asthma plan may include restarting an inhaled corticosteroid if it has been stopped, taking the reliever inhaler more often, and seeking medical advice.
    • The asthma plan is likely to be stratified depending on PEFR - the lower the PEFR, the more urgently medical advice should be sought. This may include calling 999 (or equivalent medical emergency number if non-UK) if there are features such as difficulty breathing that affects the ability to walk or talk, or if the PEFR is below a certain level.[7]
  • Resources - patient information leaflets and proforma action plans can be downloaded or ordered from various websites. Ensure that these are high-quality and non-promotional.
  • Ensure that all team members are convinced by the benefits of providing written action plans and are offering consistent advice.
  • Consider which patients to target - sometimes targeting those who are likely to benefit the most (ie those with poorly controlled, moderate or severe asthma) via diagnostic or prescription term searches is more realistic initially. Changes in control markers can be audited to review progress.
  • Determine whether delivery of education and action plans should be part of routine care or done individually/in groups in dedicated clinic time. Extra consultation time may be required but this may be balanced against a reduction in unscheduled GP appointments in the longer-term.
  • An acute consultation offers the chance to check what action a patient has already taken to manage an exacerbation. Consider further reinforcement or refining of the existing action plan and the need for routine follow-up to consolidate progress.
  • Education and advice should be individualised. Explore patient ideas, concerns and expectations. Linking patient goals to brief simple education is most likely to be acceptable to patients.
  • Different approaches may be required for different patient groups - eg, teenagers, preschool children, working adults and elderly patients.

Asthma action plans must be reviewed and updated regularly.[12, 8]

Written asthma action plan templates are available from many different sources. The current British Thoracic Society/Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network guideline gives the Asthma UK action plan as an example and includes a link to it in the guideline - Asthma UK also provides an action plan for children.[6]

Example of an asthma action plan

Patient name:
Date of birth:
Next of kin:
Contact numbers:
Usual doctor/asthma nurse:
Contact numbers:
Best peak flow:
Asthma triggers:
Drug allergies:
Date of last update:
When my asthma is well controlled:
  • I have no regular daytime symptoms (cough, wheeze, chest tightness, shortness of breath).
  • I have no difficulty sleeping because of my asthma symptoms.
  • My asthma does not interfere with my usual activities (eg, work, study, housework).
  • My peak flow is above 85% of personal best.
What should I do?
  • Continue your usual treatment.
  • If you are always in this box, see your doctor or nurse to review stepping down treatment.
My usual treatment:

My preventer/reliever medications are:

When my asthma is getting worse:Moderate symptoms:
  • I need my reliever puffer every 3-4 hours or more often.
  • I am having constant wheezing, coughing, chest tightness.
  • I am having difficulty with normal activity.
  • My peak flow is between 50-75% of personal best.
What should I do?
  • Acute treatment - bronchodilator (eg, salbutamol 4-6 puffs) via spacer or nebuliser. Repeat every 10-20 minutes if necessary.
  • Monitor response - symptoms and peak flow. If deteriorating, seek medical help. If improving/stable, seek medical review within 48 hours.
  • Step up usual preventative treatment - quadrupling inhaled steroids may be advised whilst waiting to see a healthcare professional. This approach is less effective in those already on high-dose maintenance inhaled steroids (eg, >400 micrograms/day) who may need to move directly to oral steroids. [2, 6]
  • Oral prednisolone 40-50 mg oral dose for at least five days. See your doctor or nurse within 24-36 hours of starting such a course.
  • When your symptoms have returned to being well controlled, switch back to your usual treatment after three days.
How to recognise emergency asthma:
  • I am having great difficulty breathing.
  • My reliever puffer is giving little or no improvement.
  • It is difficult to speak or walk due to severe shortness of breath.
  • Symptoms are getting worse quickly.
  • I am feeling frightened.
  • My peak flow is less than 50% of personal best.
What should I do?
  • Take your reliever puffer. If there is no immediate improvement, contact a doctor urgently and, if one is not available, call 999/112/911 for an ambulance or go straight to hospital.
  • Sit upright and stay calm.
Emergency treatment
whilst waiting for doctor/ambulance:
Take one puff of salbutamol via spacer every five minutes or until symptoms improve.
Updating my action plan:
  • I should see my nurse/doctor for a regular asthma review at least once a year. My next one is due:
  • If your medication has been increased, see the nurse or doctor after a month to review progress.
  • If your symptoms have been very well controlled over at least three months, arrange a review as it may be possible to step down your treatment.

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Further reading and references

  1. Damon SA, Tardif RR; Asthma education: different viewpoints elicited by qualitative and quantitative methods. J Asthma. 2014 Oct 1:1-4.

  2. Asthma; NICE CKS, April 2022 (UK access only)

  3. Asthma: diagnosis, monitoring and chronic asthma management; NICE Guideline (November 2017 - last updated April 2021)

  4. Powell H, Gibson PG; Options for self-management education for adults with asthma. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003(1):CD004107.

  5. Guevara JP, Wolf FM, Grum CM, et al; Effects of educational interventions for self management of asthma in children and adolescents: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2003 Jun 14326(7402):1308-9.

  6. British guideline on the management of asthma; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), British Thoracic Society (BTS), NHS Scotland (2003 - revised July 2019)

  7. Asthma action plan; Asthma + Lung UK

  8. National Review of Asthma Deaths; Royal College of Physicians (2014)

  9. No authors listed; Action plans in asthma. Drug Ther Bull. 2005 Dec43(12):91-4.

  10. Gibson PG, Powell H; Written action plans for asthma: an evidence-based review of the key components. Thorax. 2004 Feb59(2):94-9.

  11. Zemek RL, Bhogal SK, Ducharme FM; Systematic review of randomized controlled trials examining written action plans in children: what is the plan? Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008 Feb162(2):157-63.

  12. Ring N, Booth H, Wilson C, et al; The 'vicious cycle' of personalised asthma action plan implementation in primary care: a qualitative study of patients and health professionals' views. BMC Fam Pract. 2015 Oct 2116:145. doi: 10.1186/s12875-015-0352-4.

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