When people have asthma, their airways are always a little swollen or irritated. Airways are the tiny breathing tubes in a person's lungs.
During an asthma flare-up (also called an asthma flare, attack, episode, or exacerbation), the problems worsen. Sticky mucus clogs the airways. The muscles around them tighten up. That narrows the breathing tubes. Picture a straw with walls that are getting thicker and narrower, leaving less and less space inside for air to get through.
A person who is having a flare-up might:
If a flare-up is severe, the person may struggle to breathe even while sitting still. Someone having a severe flare-up may not be able to speak more than few words without stopping to breathe.
Asthma flare-ups can be dangerous — and scary. You have to act fast! Someone having an asthma flare-up might need to take quick-relief medicine, visit the doctor, or even go to the hospital.
Having a set of instructions called an asthma action plan helps you know what to do.
Some things, like smoke or perfume, bring on breathing problems for people with asthma. These things are called triggers.
Different people have different triggers. For some people a trigger may be cold air, exercise, or infections (like colds). For others triggers might be allergens like animal dander, dust mites, or mold.
Triggers can cause flare-ups because they make the swelling in the airways worse and increase the amount of mucus. Triggers also can cause the muscles around the airways to tighten, making the airways even narrower.
If a flare-up isn't treated it can last for several hours or even days. Quick-relief medicines (inhalers or "puffers") often take care of the symptoms pretty fast. Most people feel better after a flare-up is over, though it can take several days to completely clear up.
You can predict some flare-ups, but it might take a bit of detective work.
Some flare-ups happen suddenly, after a person is exposed to a trigger — like being around someone who is smoking. Flare-ups also happen when problems in the airways build up over time. That can happen when a person's asthma is not well controlled.
Flare-ups need to be treated at their earliest stages. So it's important to know early warning signs (things that someone might notice just before a flare-up happens).
Clues that a flare-up might happen are different for everyone. They might even be different with each asthma flare-up.
Early warning signs include:
Some doctors tell people with asthma to use a peak flow meter as a way to help predict if a flare-up is on its way.
You have the power to prevent flare-ups, at least some of the time. Here's what you can do:
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014
|National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) conducts and supports basic and applied research to better understand, treat, and ultimately prevent infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases.|
|American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology offers up-to-date information and a find-an-allergist search tool.|
|American Lung Association The mission of this group is to prevent lung disease and promote lung health. Contact the group at: American Lung Association|
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|AIRNow A cross-agency U.S. government website, AIRNow provides useful air quality information, including daily Air Quality Index forecasts and details on conditions in more than 300 U.S. cities.|
|Can the Weather Affect a Person's Asthma? Scientific studies show that weather can affect asthma symptoms. If you think weather may be triggering your asthma, here are some tips for dealing with it.|
|Dealing With Asthma Triggers Triggers are substances or activities that are harmless to most people. But in people with asthma, they can lead to coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Read this article for tips on dealing with asthma triggers.|
|What's an Asthma Action Plan? An asthma action plan, or management plan, is a written plan that helps you take control of your asthma. Get the details in this article.|
|Asthma Center Visit our Asthma Center for information and advice on managing and living with asthma.|
|What's a Peak Flow Meter? Even if you're breathing OK, an asthma flare-up may be just around the corner. How can you tell? You can use a tool called a peak flow meter. Find out what a peak flow meter is and what it can do for you.|
|How Do Asthma Medicines Work? Two different types of medicines are used to treat asthma: quick-relief medicines and long-term control medicines. Read about how they work - and why people might need to take them.|
|Dealing With an Asthma Flare-Up Asthma flare-ups, or attacks, can be handled, but it's even better if you can prevent them from happening. Find out how to deal with flare-ups.|
|Do Allergies Cause Asthma? Some things that cause an allergic reaction, such as pollen or dust, can also trigger asthma symptoms. But not everyone who has allergies develops asthma and not all case of asthma are related to allergies. Find out about the connection here.|
|Asthma-Safe Homes You want to feel good in your own home, right? If you have asthma, you can take steps to remove or minimize triggers at home that cause breathing problems and asthma flare-ups.|
|Ozone, Air Quality, and Asthma Ozone and other things that pollute the air can be problems for people with asthma and can cause asthma flare-ups. Find out how to deal with ozone.|
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