Asthma Lexicon: Attacks Versus Flare-Ups

Sometimes we call them asthma episodes. Sometimes asthma attacks. Sometimes asthma flare-ups. What’s the difference between these three phrases? Here is my take.

Asthma attacks

This is where asthma symptoms stop you in your tracks. This is where your shortness of breath stops you from doing what you are doing. You then must refer to your asthma action plan and take some action. That action might be as simple as getting away from a trigger. It might be taking medicine, seeking help, or even calling 911. But, it sets you back.

“That asthma attack was awful. I got so bad I had to drive myself to the emergency room.”

Asthma flare-ups

This is where asthma symptoms appear and are simply annoying. You might have mild shortness of breath over a period of time. Your symptoms may go away with treatment, but they continue coming back. They may be mild or moderate. This is kind of like when you get a cold. It gradually gets worse, and may lead up to an attack but is not quite there.

“Before that asthma attack my asthma was flaring-up for over a week. I should have heeded this as an early warning symptom and took actions sooner.”

Asthma episodes

This is a term generally relegated to professional researchers or writers. Rather than using flare-ups or attacks, they say “episodes.” All this means is that you experienced one or more asthma symptoms.

In my opinion, an episode could either be an asthma flare-up or an attack. It’s just any symptom whatsoever no matter how severe. And it’s never used by us asthmatics nor by doctors. It may sometimes be used by asthmatics in referring to symptoms, be they due to flare-ups or attacks.

“The typical asthmatic has periodic asthma episodes. These episodes vary in intensity from mild to severe. These asthma episodes are completely reversible with either time or treatment.”

Normal breathing

This is what it should be like between asthma attacks or asthma flare-ups (or, in the case of the researchers, asthma episodes). Your lung function should be 80% or better. This means your FEV1 should be 80% of your predicted value or better. And mine usually is. This is how I feel on most days, and how most asthmatics should be on most days.

"Most asthmatics should experience normal breathing between attacks."


This is when periods between asthma flare-ups or attacks (or episodes again) seem to last a long-long time. For instance, you feel no or very few symptoms over a span of months or even years. When this happens we asthmatics seem to forget we have asthma, and that brings me to my next term. Note: For the record, asthma may appear to go into remission. But, it’s a myth that it goes away.

"Sometimes childhood asthma may go into remission after puberty." 

Asthma forgetfulness

Oh, gosh, so many asthmatics have talked to me about this. This is where you feel so good for so long you forget you have asthma. You might forget to take your medicine. Maybe you'll get overconfident and intentionally expose yourself to one of your asthma triggers.

"You might, as I did, write a facetious post called, “I Sold My Asthma.” But, then, some day, it will all come back and you’ll make fun of your asthma forgetfulness. Lessons are learned this way."

What to make of this?

Sure, there are a few asthma definitions. These are my own personal definitions. You might have your own “words” that you use to define or describe your asthma. Sometimes it’s fun to have a little fun with these definitions.

How do you define your asthma? Let us know in the comments below.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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