Dealing With an Asthma Flare-Up

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. The lungs may make sticky mucus, which clogs the airways. And the muscles around the airways tighten up, making the airways really narrow. These troubles in the lungs make it tough to pull air in and push air out.

You can learn to handle asthma flare-ups by being aware of the signals that mean you're likely to have a flare-up, having a plan to deal with it, and preventing future flare-ups by taking medication and avoiding triggers.

Spot the Clues

After you've had a few flare-ups, you may notice that you feel a certain way when a flare-up is coming on. You might have a tight chest, an itchy throat, or a tired feeling. Or do you have a cough, even though you don't have a cold? If you have a peak flow meter, this might be a good time to use it.

Have a Plan

Get help if you feel like a flare-up is about to happen. Let people around you know what's going on, and then remember your asthma action plan. That's the written plan created with your doctor that tells you which medicine to take and what to do next. It's tempting to ignore the flare-up or hope it will go away on its own. It won't — and you might end up in the emergency room.

When a flare-up occurs, it's important to stay calm and focus on what your asthma action plan says. Your doctor will probably have instructed you to use your rescue medication, and if you can figure out what triggered your symptoms, remove it — or yourself — from the area. Sometimes that is all that is needed to get your asthma under control again.

Other times, if the flare-up is more severe, you might need more help. The important thing is to have created a plan together with your doctor in advance, so that you know what to do when a flare-up occurs, whether it is mild or more serious.

Prevent Flare-Ups

Asthma flare-ups can be handled, but it's even better if you can prevent them from happening. One way to do that is to avoid the things that trigger your asthma wherever possible.

Many people who have asthma also have allergies, so common triggers include things that cause allergies. Some of these are pets, dust mites, mold, or cockroaches. Other triggers do not cause allergies, but they simply 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.

If your doctor has prescribed a controller medicine for you, taking it as directed is another great way to prevent flare-ups. Controller medicine needs to be taken regularly, even on days when you feel fine.

Some flare-ups are serious, but others are mild. Flare-ups can happen suddenly but can also 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.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: November 2009

Related Sites

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
American Lung Association

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What's an Asthma Flare-Up?
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