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What Happens During an Asthma Flare-Up?

People with asthma have what is called a chronic (say: KRAH-nik) problem, or a problem that is always there, even when they feel OK. Everyday stuff such as exercise, pets, or cigarette smoke can cause an asthma flare-up.

During an asthma flare-up, the airways (breathing tubes where air moves in and out of the lungs) get swollen (puffy). These narrowed airways (breathing tubes) also can get clogged with mucus. And the muscles around the airways can tighten up. All of this makes it tough to breathe.

But medicine can help. There are two different kinds of medicines for treating asthma:

1. Rescue Medications

Rescue medications can loosen the muscles around the airways. That opens up the airways and makes it easier to breathe. Rescue medicines are usually inhaled (breathed) right into the lungs, where they stop wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath quickly. In other words, they rescue a person who's having trouble breathing!

2. Controller Medications

These medicines work over a long period of time by keeping the airways from getting swollen in the first place. They may be inhaled or taken as a pill or liquid.

Rescue medications are important during a flare-up because they help someone breathe more easily right away. That means anyone who has asthma and has been prescribed rescue medications should always have them along — at school, on the basketball court, at the mall, and even on vacation.

But rescue medications don't do anything to help prevent an asthma flare-up. That's where controller medications come in. These medicines might not seem to be doing anything. In fact, a kid with asthma might not feel anything at all when taking them. But these medicines are quietly doing important work to control asthma every day.

Some people with mild asthma use only rescue medications when they have flare-ups. Others who have more severe asthma must take rescue medication when they have breathing problems and they need to take controller medications every day.

If you have asthma, your doctor will decide which type of medication you need and how often you need to take it.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014
Originally reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD

Other Related KidsHealth Articles:
Asthma is a condition that affects a person's airways, also known as breathing tubes. Find out more in this article for kids.
Asthma Center
Asthma means breathing problems. Find out what's going on in the lungs and how to stay healthy, if you have it.
Handling an Asthma Flare-Up
How can you prepare for an asthma flare-up? Find out in this article for kids.
What Medicines Are and What They Do
You've taken medicine before. But what is it?
What's an Asthma Flare-Up?
A kid who has asthma might have an asthma attack (or flare-up). Find out more in this article for kids.
Related Resources:
AAAAI Just for Kids
This Just for Kids page from the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology offers lots of fun activities to help you learn about managing your allergies and asthma.
American Lung Association
The mission of this group is to prevent lung disease and promote lung health. Contact the group at: American Lung Association 61 Broadway, 6th Floor NY, NY 10006 (212) 315-8700