Why do asthma attacks occur?

Asthma is a variable disease, which means that it tends to flare up (get worse) from time to time at varying degrees of severity. Why does this occur? While the causes of asthma attacks (also called "asthma flare-ups") are not fully known, scientists think they may be related to the way the disease affects the lungs.

In people with asthma, the airways are inflamed (swollen) and may be clogged with mucus. Both things make the airways narrower so it's harder to breathe. As well, asthma makes the airways very sensitive. If a person with asthma is exposed to something that irritates the airways (such as the asthma "triggers" listed below), the airways can tighten up, making breathing even more difficult.

It's very important to take your asthma medications regularly and as directed. Many people decide to stop taking their medications when their symptoms disappear. This is not a good idea! The reason is that most people without asthma symptoms have some degree of inflammation and bronchoconstriction in their airways which needs to be treated. If you stop taking your medications completely or don't take them exactly as prescribed, the cycle of inflammation and bronchoconstriction will start again and you could end up having a serious asthma attack. If you have questions or concerns about your asthma medications, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

One of the ways you can manage your asthma is to avoid exposure to the common asthma "triggers." These include pollution, cigarette smoke, exercise, stress, cold air, and infections. Many people with asthma also have other triggers, which are usually things they are allergic to, such as pollen, dust mites or animal dander. Asthma triggers irritate your airways and cause them to become narrow and inflamed which makes it difficult to breathe – an asthma attack.

So how can you avoid an asthma attack? While it may not be possible to completely prevent an attack, there are things you can do to reduce your risk:

  • Avoid asthma triggers.
  • Use your medications as directed.
  • Print a copy of an asthma action plan if you don't have one already.
  • Follow your asthma action plan.

Your asthma action plan helps you recognize the early warning signs of an asthma attack so you can better manage your asthma.

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