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Asthma Flare-Ups

What Are Asthma Flare-Ups?

Keeping asthma under control helps kids avoid breathing problems.

But sometimes, asthma symptoms get worse, making kids wheeze, cough, or be short of breath. This is known as an asthma flare-up (also called an asthma attack, episode, or exacerbation).

If the flare-up is severe, a kid might:

  • struggle to breathe or have rapid breathing even when sitting still
  • be unable to speak more than a few words at a time without pausing
  • have retractions (sucking in of muscles in the neck and chest) while breathing in

What Happens in an Asthma Flare-Up?

In the lungs, airways let air in and out. When someone has asthma, these airways (also called bronchial tubes and bronchioles) might be slightly inflamed or swollen, even when the person seems to be breathing fine.

During a flare-up:

What Happens During an Asthma Flare-Up?

  • The inflammation gets worse. Sticky mucus clogs the airways and their walls get more swollen.
  • The muscles around the airways get tight, further narrowing them (this is called bronchoconstriction).

These problems leave very little room in the airways for air to flow through — think of a straw that's being pinched.

What Causes Asthma Flare-Ups?

People with asthma have airways that are overly sensitive to some things (called triggers). Being around triggers can bring on asthma symptoms.

Common triggers include:

Many people with asthma also have allergies. For them, allergens — the things that cause the allergic symptoms — also can cause asthma flare-ups.

If not treated, a flare-up can last for several hours or even days. Quick-relief medicines (also called rescue medicines or fast-acting medicines) often stop the symptoms pretty quickly. A person should feel better once the flare-up ends, although this can take several days.

What Are the Signs of an Asthma Flare-Up?

Asthma flare-ups can vary in strength and length. They can happen without warning, causing sudden coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

But because people with asthma have inflamed airways that get worse with gradual exposure to triggers, flare-ups also can build over time, especially when asthma isn't well controlled.

Flare-ups should be treated right away. So it's important to know their early warning signs, including:

  • coughing
  • throat clearing
  • rapid or irregular breathing
  • being very tired
  • trouble doing everyday activities
  • restless sleep or coughing that prevents sleep
  • mild chest tightness or wheezing

A peak flow meter can help predict a flare-up, but not all flare-ups can be prevented.

Because they can be life-threatening, flare-ups demand attention. Your child might need to take quick-relief medicine (which acts quickly to relieve symptoms), visit the doctor, or even go to the hospital.

Following the instructions in your child's asthma action plan can help you know what to do when a flare-up happens.

How Can We Help Prevent Asthma Flare-Ups?

To help prevent flare-ups:

  • Make sure your child always has quick-relief medicine available.
  • Teach your child how to avoid asthma triggers.
  • Make sure your child takes the long-term control medicine (also called controller medicine or maintenance medicine) as the doctor directed. Even when your child feels well, it's important not to skip it.
  • Make sure your child gets a yearly flu vaccine, and washes his or her hands well and often to avoiding germs that lead to colds and other illnesses.
  • Work with the doctor on an effective asthma action plan.
Date reviewed: September 2017

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

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