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Handling an Asthma Flare-Up

What's a Flare-Up?

If you have asthma, you probably know about flare-ups. 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

What Happens During an Asthma Flare-Up?

Flare-ups happen because the airways in your lungs have become more irritated and swollen (puffy) 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. Here are three ways to be prepared:

  • Learn how spot clues that mean you're likely to have a flare-up.
  • 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).
  • Find out how to prevent future flare-ups by taking your controller medicine 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. 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.

Prevent Flare-Ups

Asthma Action Plan

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 triggers. We're not talking about triggers on guns! Many kids who have asthma also have allergies, so common triggers include things that cause allergies. Some of these are pets, dust mites (little bugs that live in dust), 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 might be able to prevent some asthma flare-ups.

If your doctor prescribed controller medicine for you, taking it as directed is another important 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 in kids who aren't taking the asthma medicine they need. 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 2011

Kids Health

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

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