When you have asthma, simple things can trigger a flare-up, like pollen, pet dander and even changes in the weather. And when asthma symptoms hit hard, it can put a damper on your day. The key to dealing with a flare? Being prepared.
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What is an asthma flare?
“An asthma flare-up, also called an asthma exacerbation, happens when something irritates your airways and makes them swell,” says Nicholas Iaccarino, DO, a family medicine physician at Geisinger.
Once the airways swell, the muscles around them contract, producing extra mucus. That excess mucus narrows your bronchial tubes, making it harder to breathe.
If not treated, a flare-up can lead to an asthma attack. So it’s crucial to take action when symptoms start.
Symptoms of an asthma flare include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
What causes a flare-up?
Asthma symptoms appear when you’re exposed to triggers. But asthma triggers aren’t the same for everyone. Common ones include:
Pollen is one of the most common triggers of seasonal asthma. This fine powder is released into the air during spring and summer — and even fall — by trees, grasses and weeds. If you’re sensitive to pollen, your body may see it as harmful, which can lead to a reaction. “To fight it off, your immune system releases a substance called immunoglobin E, or IgE,” Dr. Iaccarino says. That immune response makes your airways swell, causing asthma symptoms.
Poor air quality
Breathing polluted air irritates your airways — another cause for a flare-up. Common sources of air pollution include:
- Fine particles
These microscopic creatures call dust their home. If you could see them, you’d find dust mites hiding in things around your home, like bedding, carpeting and furniture. And if you have children, their beloved stuffed animals can harbor these sneaky pests. Breathing in their byproducts can worsen asthma symptoms.
Mold grows in damp or humid environments, like basements and bathrooms. To reproduce, it releases tiny particles into the air called spores. If you inhale them, mold spores can trigger an asthma attack.
Oddly, even abrupt weather changes can lead to asthma symptoms. “Symptoms can worsen when seasons change or when there’s a severe weather event,” says Dr. Iaccarino. Wondering what weather has to do with asthma?
Breathing in cold, dry air irritates airways, making you wheeze and cough. And hot, humid air — because it’s heavy and full of moisture — makes your lungs work harder. Finally, wet or windy conditions can stir up mold and pollen, triggering symptoms.
Our furry friends bring us joy. They also bring an unexpected and often unwanted guest — dander, or dead skin cells. Pet dander, as well as other proteins found in their saliva and waste, can cause allergic reactions for some. And if inhaled, dander can worsen asthma symptoms.
Besides these, other triggers include:
- Acid reflux
- Heavy exercise
- Sicknesses, like sinus or upper respiratory infections
How to manage asthma flares
To keep flare-ups at bay, follow these tips:
1. Identify and manage your triggers
Understanding your specific triggers and avoiding them where possible is a good way to stay ahead of flares. For example, if pollen or bad air quality aggravates your asthma, keep your windows closed or stay inside when needed. Keeping your living or workspace clean and dust-free will help you minimize symptoms.
2. Always have a quick-relief inhaler nearby
Want to be ready in case of a flare-up? Don’t leave home without your rescue inhaler. It’ll help relieve your symptoms and get them under control quickly.
3. Create an asthma action plan
“An asthma action plan is a written plan that outlines what to do if you have an asthma attack,” says Dr. laccarino. Your healthcare provider will work with you to build a plan tailored to your specific needs.
Your plan will:
- Identify triggers and symptoms
- List medications to use and when
- Detail what to do if symptoms get worse or don’t respond to treatment
4. Get your flu shot
Another way to prevent asthma flares: Get your yearly flu shot. This vaccine helps protect you from the virus that causes the flu — and avoid a respiratory infection that may set off a flare-up. Then you can focus on staying well all year long.
5. Record your symptoms
To identify triggers and patterns in your symptoms, start logging when they happen. The more detail, the better — include the type of environment, the weather, your overall health and anything else that might be connected. Then share your findings with your provider so they can help you recognize red flags.
When to see a doctor
When you have asthma, keeping your healthcare provider involved is crucial. Make an appointment if you’re:
- Having trouble controlling your symptoms
- Using your rescue inhaler more than twice a week
- Missing school or work because of asthma symptoms
- Having anxiety or stress related to your symptoms
They can work with you to build a plan to control your symptoms, so you can stay ahead of flare-ups.