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Handling an Asthma Flare-Up

Reviewed by: Aledie A. Navas, MD

What's an Asthma Flare-Up?

If you have asthma, you probably know about flare-ups (also called asthma "attacks"). That's when your asthma symptoms get worse.

During a flare-up, you might have:

  • trouble breathing
  • a tight or painful feeling in the chest
  • a whistling sound when you breathe (wheezing)
  • a cough

Some flare-ups are mild, but others are serious. If the flare-up is severe, a kid might:

  • struggle to breathe or have fast breathing even when sitting still
  • not be able speak more than a few words at a time without pausing
  • have sucking in of muscles in the neck and chest while breathing in

Flare-ups happen because the airways in your lungs become more irritated and swollen (puffy) than usual. The lungs might make sticky mucus, which clogs the airways. And the muscles around the airways tighten up, making the airways really narrow. These problems make it hard for the lungs to pull air in and push air out.

You can learn to handle asthma flare-ups. Here are three ways to be prepared:

  1. Learn how to spot clues that mean you're likely to have a flare-up.
  2. Have a plan for how you will deal with a flare-up, no matter where you are (home, school, a friend's house, or on vacation).
  3. Find out how to prevent future flare-ups by taking your long-term control medicine (also called controller or maintenance medicine) and avoiding triggers.

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. 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.

What Should I Do if I Have a Flare-Up?

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. Don't 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.

Can I Prevent Asthma Flare-Ups?

You also have the power to prevent flare-ups, at least some of the time. Here's what you can do:

  • Always have your inhaler and spacer with you.
  • Stay away from things that may cause flare-ups (your triggers), such as tobacco smoke, cold air, pet dander, or pollen. If you don't know your triggers, ask your parents or your doctor.
  • Take your long-term control medicine as directed. Don't skip it or take less of it because you're feeling better.
  • Work with your parents and doctor to follow an asthma action plan.
  • Asthma Flare-ups: What Happens

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Reviewed by: Aledie A. Navas, MD
Date reviewed: August 2018