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Dealing With an Asthma Flare-Up

If you have asthma, you probably know about flare-ups. Flare-ups happen when your asthma symptoms get worse.

What Can Happen

During a flare-up, you might have:

  • trouble breathing
  • a tight chest
  • a whistling sound when you breathe (wheezing)
  • a cough

Flare-ups happen because the airways in your lungs have become more irritated and swollen than usual. Your lungs might make a sticky mucus, which clogs the airways. The muscles around the airways will also tighten up, making the airways really narrow. This clogging and narrowing make it tough to pull air in and push air out.

You can learn to handle asthma flare-ups and stay in charge of your asthma by doing three things:

  1. Pay attention to signs that you might have a flare-up.
  2. Have a plan to deal with flare-ups.
  3. Prevent future flare-ups by taking medicine and avoiding triggers.

Pay Attention to the Signs

After you've had a few flare-ups, you may notice that you feel a certain way when a flare-up is coming on. Do you have a tight chest or an itchy throat? Are you feeling tired? Do you have a cough, even though you don't have a cold?

Have a Plan

If you feel like a flare-up is about to happen, let people around you know what's going on. Then remember your asthma action plan. That's the written plan that tells you what to do next.

When a flare-up happens, it helps to stay calm and focus on what your asthma action plan says. Your doctor probably told you to use your quick-relief medicine, so do that first.

If you can figure out what triggered your symptoms (like a pet or someone who is smoking), remove the trigger — or yourself — from the area. Sometimes that's all you need to get your asthma under control again.

If a flare-up is more severe, you might need to ask for help.

It's tempting to ignore a flare-up or hope it will go away on its own. It won't — and ignoring a flare-up might land you in the emergency room.

Prevent Flare-Ups

Asthma flare-ups can be handled, but it's even better if you can prevent them from happening. Two ways to do that are:

  1. Avoid the things that trigger your asthma wherever possible.
  2. Take medicines as your doctor prescribes.

Avoid Triggers

Many people who have asthma also have allergies. Dust mites are a common for people with asthma. So are pets, mold, or cockroaches.

Other triggers don't cause allergies, but they do irritate the airways. These include tobacco smoke, cold air, exercise, and infections such as colds. If you try to avoid your triggers, you may sometimes be able to prevent asthma flare-ups.

Take Medicines

If your doctor prescribed a long-term control medicine, take it each day, even on days when you feel fine. Long-term control medicine needs to be taken exactly as your doctor tells you to keep protecting you against flare-ups.

Some flare-ups are serious, but others are mild. Flare-ups can happen suddenly. They also can build up over time, especially if you haven't been taking your medicine. You won't be able to stop all flare-ups, so do your best to be prepared for one.

The most important thing is planning and knowing what to do in advance. Work with your doctor to build and update your asthma action plan. That way, you know what to do when a flare-up happens and you're in control if things get serious.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014