An asthma flare-up is when asthma symptoms get worse, making someone wheeze, cough, or be short of breath. An asthma flare-up can happen even when asthma is controlled.
Asthma flare-ups are also called asthma attacks or exacerbations.
Triggers like allergies, respiratory infections (like a cold), cigarette smoke, exercise, or even cold air can cause a flare-up and make asthma symptoms worse.
What Happens During an Asthma Flare-Up?
During a flare-up, you might have:
a tight chest
a whistling sound when you breathe (wheezing)
Flare-ups happen when the airways in the lungs get 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 them really narrow. This clogging and narrowing make it tough to pull air in and push air out.
Some flare-ups are mild, but others are serious. If the flare-up is severe, a person might:
struggle to breathe or have fast breathing even when sitting still
not be able 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
Flare-ups can happen suddenly. They also can build up over time, especially if you haven't been taking your asthma medicine.
How Can I Spot an Asthma Flare-Up?
After you've had a few flare-ups, you may notice that you feel a certain way when one 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?
How Do I Handle an Asthma Flare-Up?
If you feel like a flare-up is about to happen, stay calm. 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.
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 get help.
When Should I Go to the ER?
Don't be embarrassed to get medical help if you think you need it. These situations call for emergency care:
You take your asthma medicine and your flare-up doesn't get any better.
You feel a little better after taking your medicine, but your symptoms come back quickly.
You have frequent wheezing, a lasting cough, or chest pain.
Your lips and fingernails are bluish or grayish.
You have trouble breathing, talking, or walking.
How Can I Prevent Asthma Flare-Ups?
Asthma flare-ups can be handled, but it's even better if you can prevent them from happening. To do that:
Take asthma medicines as directed. If your doctor prescribed a long-term control medicine, take it each day, even when you feel fine. It needs to be taken exactly as your doctor tells you to keep protecting you against flare-ups.
Get a flu shot each year before flu season starts.
Avoid triggers. By knowing and avoiding your triggers, you might be able to prevent some flare-ups.
It's important to plan ahead and know what to do. Work with your doctor to build and update your asthma action plan. That way, you know what to do if a flare-up happens and you're in control if things get serious.