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 someone's asthma is well-controlled.
Asthma flare-ups are also called asthma attacks or exacerbations.
Triggers like allergies, viral respiratory infections (like the flu or common cold), tobacco smoke, cold and dry air, hot and humid air, pet dander, or pollen can cause a flare-up and make asthma symptoms worse.
In asthma, the airways are always slightly inflamed (irritated and swollen), even when the person seems to be breathing fine. Flare-ups happen when the airways get more irritated and swollen than usual. The 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 hard for air to get through.
Early warning signs of a flare-up can include:
During a flare-up, symptoms include:
Some flare-ups are mild, but others are serious. They can happen suddenly, or build up over time, especially if you haven't been taking your asthma medicine.
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?
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 already take a daily medicine, the “quick-relief” medicine might be extra doses of the daily medicine, or it might be a different type.
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.
Don't be embarrassed to get medical help if you think you need it. Get emergency care if:
Asthma flare-ups can be handled, but it's even better if you can prevent them. To do that:
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.
Learn what asthma is, what happens during an asthma flare-up, and how to control and live with asthma.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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