What Happens During an Asthma Flare-Up?

Asthma (say: AZ-muh) is a condition that affects a person's breathing. Inside the lungs are airways called breathing tubes or bronchial (say: BRONG-kee-ul) tubes. With asthma, some of the smallest tubes can swell and narrow, making it harder for air to get through.

Let's talk about breathing. When you breathe in, air enters your nose or mouth, then goes to the windpipe, also called the trachea (say: TRAY-kee-uh). From there, the air travels into the lungs through the breathing tubes. These airways divide like branches of a tree and get smaller and smaller until they reach the end of the line.

At the end of the smallest airways are the alveoli (say: al-VEE-oh-lye), tiny sacs deep in the lungs. That's where your lungs take oxygen out of the air and move it into your blood — an important step because every part of your body needs oxygen to keep working like it should. The whole process goes in reverse when you exhale, sending carbon dioxide out of your body.

A kid with asthma can have trouble breathing because the airways are sensitive. They work normally sometimes, but other times they might swell and narrow. So breathing gets harder because the tubes close in a little bit, like a straw that's being squeezed. The swollen airways can make extra mucus, which makes things pretty sticky, so that can get in the way, too.

A kid with asthma may wheeze (make a whistling sound), cough, and feel tightness in the chest. An asthma flare-up can get worse if a kid doesn't use asthma medicine. After an asthma flare-up, the airways almost always return to the way they were before, although it can take several days.

Who Gets Asthma?

No one really knows why one person's airways are more sensitive than another person's, but we do know that asthma runs in families. That means if a kid has asthma, he or she might have a parent, sibling, uncle, or other relative who has asthma or had it as a kid.

What Causes an Asthma Flare-Up?

Anything that causes an asthma flare-up (attack) is called an asthma trigger. Different kids have different triggers. Common triggers include:

How Is Asthma Treated?

One way to treat asthma is for the person to avoid triggers, like furry animals or dust. But it's not always possible to avoid triggers, so most kids who have asthma also take medicine.

Not every kid's asthma is the same, so there are different kinds of medicines for treating it. The doctor will think about what causes the asthma flare-ups, how fast the flare-ups happen, and how serious they are. Then he or she will decide on the best kind of treatment.

The doctor also can write down an asthma action plan to help a kid remember which medicines to use and when. Kids with asthma might use a peak flow meter to get an idea of how well they are breathing that day and whether they need to take any medicine.

A kid who knows in advance that he or she will be around allergens or other triggers may need to take medicine ahead of time that will keep the airways open. And kids who have exercise-induced asthma can take medicine before exercising so they'll be able to finish a race or game.

One kind of asthma medicine is called quick-relief (or fast-acting) medicine. It works fast to help open a kid's airways so he or she can breathe again.

Another kind of asthma medicine is called long-term control medicine (also called controller or maintenance medicine). It's a daily medicine that's designed to keep flare-ups from happening.

Asthma medicine often is taken through an inhaler (say: in-HAY-lur), a plastic tube that holds a container of medicine. A kid holds the inhaler up to his or her mouth and breathes in. The medicine comes out in a mist that goes into the lungs. The medicine in the mist relaxes the airways, so the person can breathe easier.

Use a Spacer

Most kids with asthma use an inhaler with something called a spacer. A spacer attaches to the inhaler and holds the mist in one place, between the inhaler and the kid's mouth. It lets the kid breathe in when he or she is ready, so it's easier to inhale all the medication into the lungs.

Kids image

Kids also might take pills or liquid medicine to control asthma. In rare cases, they might get an injection (shot) at the doctor's office. Whatever medicine the kid takes, the goal is always the same: to keep asthma under control so triggers don't create problems.

A lot of kids find their asthma goes away or becomes less serious as they get older. Some doctors think this happens because the airways grow wider as a kid grows up and gets bigger. With more room in the airways, the air has an easier time getting in and out.

Some people do have asthma as adults, but it doesn't have to slow them down. Some top athletes manage their asthma while still competing at professional and Olympic levels.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: March 2015
Originally reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, and Nicole Green, MD

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995-2015 KidsHealth® All rights reserved.
Images provided by iStock, Getty Images, Corbis, Veer, Science Photo Library, Science Source Images, Shutterstock, and

Bookmark and Share

Related Resources
Web SiteAAAAI Just for Kids This Just for Kids page from the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology offers lots of fun activities to help you learn about managing your allergies and asthma.
Web SiteAIRNow 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.
Related Articles
School and Asthma If a kid has asthma, he or she needs to know how to handle it at school. Find out more in this article for kids.
What's an Asthma Action Plan? If you have asthma, you'll want to have an asthma action plan. Find out more in this article for kids.
What's an Asthma Flare-Up? A kid who has asthma might have an asthma attack (or flare-up). Find out more in this article for kids.
Handling an Asthma Flare-Up How can you prepare for an asthma flare-up? Find out in this article for kids.
How Do Asthma Medicines Work? Kids who have asthma need to take medicine. But what kind of medicine do they take and what does it do? Let's find out.
Asthma: Alexis' Story (Video) Asthma means a person has breathing problems. Find out how Alexis handles her asthma and still stays active.
Asthma Center Asthma means breathing problems. Find out what's going on in the lungs and how to stay healthy, if you have it.
Dealing With Asthma Triggers Don't pull that asthma trigger! If you have asthma, certain things may cause you to cough and have trouble breathing. Find out more about asthma triggers in this article for kids.
Developments Developments
Sign up for enewsletter
Get involved Get involved
Discover ways to support Akron Children's