What Are Asthma Flare-Ups? An asthma flare-up is when asthma symptoms get worse, making kids 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. What Happens in an Asthma Flare-Up? Asthma is a disease of the breathing tubes that deliver air in and out of the lungs. When someone has asthma, these airways (also called bronchial tubes and bronchioles) might be slightly inflamed or swollen, even when the person seems to be breathing fine. During a flare-up: The inflammation gets worse. Sticky mucus clogs the airways and their walls get more swollen. The muscles around the airways get tight, further narrowing them (this is called bronchoconstriction). These problems leave very little room in the airways for air to flow through — think of a straw that's being pinched. What Causes Asthma Flare-Ups? People with asthma have airways that are overly sensitive to some things (called triggers). Being around triggers can bring on asthma symptoms. The most common trigger in kids are viral respiratory infections, such as colds. Other common triggers include: tobacco smoke cold air exercise animal dander dust mites mold cockroaches Many people with asthma also have allergies, which are another important flare-up trigger. If not treated, a flare-up can last for several hours or even days. Quick-relief medicines (also called rescue medicines or fast-acting medicines) often stop the symptoms pretty quickly. A person should feel better once the flare-up ends, although this can take several days, especially if a viral infection was the trigger. What Are the Signs of an Asthma Flare-Up? Asthma flare-ups can vary in strength and length. They can happen without warning, causing sudden coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. Flare-ups should be treated right away. So it's important to know their early warning signs, including: coughing throat clearing fast or irregular breathing being very tired trouble doing everyday activities restless sleep or coughing that prevents sleep mild chest tightness or wheezing If the flare-up is severe, a kid might: struggle to breathe or have fast breathing even when sitting still be unable 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 Because they can be life-threatening, flare-ups demand attention. Your child might need to take quick-relief medicine (which acts quickly to relieve symptoms), visit the doctor, or even go to the hospital. Following the instructions in your child's asthma action plan can help you know what to do when a flare-up happens. How Can We Help Prevent Asthma Flare-Ups? To help prevent flare-ups: Make sure your child always has quick-relief medicine and the spacer available. Teach your child how to avoid asthma triggers. Make sure your child takes the long-term control medicine (also called controller medicine or maintenance medicine) as the doctor directed. Even when your child feels well, it's important not to skip it. Make sure your child gets a yearly flu vaccine, and washes his or her hands well and often to avoiding germs that lead to colds and other illnesses. Work with the doctor on an effective asthma action plan. Back to Articles Related Articles Asthma Center Asthma keeps more kids home from school than any other chronic illness. Learn how to help your child manage the condition, stay healthy, and stay in school. Read More First Aid: Asthma Flare-Ups During a flare-up or attack, it's hard to breathe. While some flare-ups are mild, others can be life threatening, so it's important to deal with them right away. Read More When to Go to the ER if Your Child Has Asthma If your child has asthma, find out when you need to go to the ER. Read More Managing Asthma Asthma control can take a little time and energy to master, but it's worth the effort. Learn more about ways to manage your child's asthma. Read More What's an Asthma Action Plan? Find out how this written plan can help you care for your child with asthma. Read More Asthma Center Visit our Asthma Center for information and advice on managing and living with asthma. Read More Asthma Center Asthma means breathing problems. Find out what's going on in the lungs and how to stay healthy, if you have it. Read More Handling an Asthma Flare-Up How can you prepare for an asthma flare-up? Find out in this article for kids. Read More Asthma Asthma makes it hard to breathe. Find out more in this article for kids. Read More Asthma Asthma is a lung condition that makes it hard to breathe. Learn all about asthma here. Read More Dealing With an Asthma Flare-Up Asthma flare-ups, or attacks, can be handled, but it's even better if you can prevent them from happening. Find out how to deal with flare-ups. Read More Asthma Medicines Asthma medicine comes in two main types: quick-relief and long-term control medicines. Even if a child takes a long-term control medicine regularly, quick-relief medicine is still needed to handle flare-ups. Read More Asthma-Safe Homes Here's steps to remove or minimize triggers at home that cause asthma flare-ups. Read More Dealing With Asthma Triggers Find out what can make your asthma worse, and what to do about it. Read More Dealing With Asthma Triggers If you have asthma, certain things may cause you to cough and have trouble breathing. Find out more about asthma triggers in this article for kids. Read More How Do Asthma Medicines Work? Kids who have asthma need to take medicine. But what kind of medicine do they take and what does it do? Let's find out. Read More How Do Asthma Medicines Work? Two different types of medicines are used to treat asthma: long-term control medicines and quick-relief medicines. Read about how they work, and why people might need to take them. Read More Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.