Patient Blogs | Asthma
What’s an Asthma Flare-Up and How Does it Feel?
photo of woman holding asthma inhaler

You may have heard someone say they're having an asthma flare-up and wondered what that actually means. While “asthma flare-up” isn't a medical term, it does articulate the situation quite well. In truth, a flare-up is a precursor to an asthma attack or an asthma attack already in progress.

Someone who is experiencing a flare-up may have chest tightness. They may be wheezing, coughing, and/or struggling to breathe due to an asthma trigger or, simply stated, a random flare-up.

A flare-up is sort of an "I better be careful because things could get hairy" situation for a person with asthma.

Those of us with chronic illness know that a flare-up usually means to proceed with caution, take it easy, and put our asthma management plans into action.

It's GO time.

What Does an Asthma Flare-Up Feel Like?

When someone has an asthma flare-up, their airways become constricted, irritated, and may fill with mucus. As you can imagine, this is a very uncomfortable situation that could cause anyone to panic.

In fact, asthma and anxiety often go hand in hand, so remaining calm is extremely important (which is exactly what an asthma management plan can do for a person with asthma).

Some with asthma liken it to feeling as though they're drowning or there's an elephant on their chest, preventing them from breathing. I can say that both of these feelings ring true for me during asthma attacks.

How Do I Know I'm Having an Asthma Flare-Up?

Unfortunately, if you've never had an asthma flare-up, you may be a bit unfamiliar with the feelings. But after a few attacks, it gets easier to spot an asthma attack.

For me, it's chest tightness, wheezing, and the urge to gulp more air to fill my lungs (which feels as though there isn't enough room for the amount of air I wish I could fill them with). But after about 35+ years of having asthma flare-ups and attacks, I also learned how to identify many of the triggers that cause my asthma, like:

  • Seasonal allergies
  • Stress
  • Illness (like a typical upper respiratory infection turned ugly)
  • Cigarette smoke

Knowing these things keeps me prepared and ready to take action to avoid the triggers, or treat them before it affects my asthma.

The First Thing I Do When My Asthma Flares Up

The first thing I do when I notice my asthma flaring up is make sure I have my inhaler on hand and identify the trigger (if possible) so I can remove it.

If it's allergies, I will take my prescribed medication to treat them and also treat the asthma flare-up as needed (and prescribed by my doctor).

On the other hand, if the trigger is something like cigarette smoke, I remove myself from the situation and treat my asthma immediately.

Getting Confident About Managing Asthma Flare-Ups

It's so important for those with asthma to work with their doctor to understand their triggers and the symptoms of an attack, and also to come up with an asthma management plan. Because, unfortunately, asthma flare-ups can come on unexpectedly, or for different reasons. (Sometimes, brand-new triggers emerge.)

Asthma flare-ups are no fun, but knowing myself, my triggers, and having an action plan help me take control of my asthma as best as possible. If I know what needs to be done, I'll have the confidence to navigate whatever triggers come my way!




Photo Credit: Karl Tapales / Moment via Getty Images

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Amanda Pieper

Amanda Pieper

Diagnosed since 1987

Amanda has lived with asthma for 39+ years. She was diagnosed at age 5 and has been an advocate for others with chronic illnesses online and in her community. She owns a small farm in Wisconsin and is a freelance writer at Copy by Amanda Pie and an empowerment coach for people who have asthma. Her passion is helping them feel understood, believed, and empowered to live life without limits.

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