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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’s 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.

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.


  • Rachel M.
    5 months ago

    I really like the the term asthma episode. I am in the midst of an asthma episode. It has been over a week and I’m coughing all the time, on a nebulizer treatment every four hours, and have tightness in my chest. Saw my amazing Allergist and now, on Prednisone and antibiotics to prevent an infection. I am exhausted. It’s been a rough week or so and I was calling it a flare up but episode does seem to capture how I’m feeling as if it will continue and may never end!!

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    5 months ago

    Hi Rachel, and thanks for joining in the conversation with your own point of view and opinion based on this article. We appreciate you sharing your thoughts with the community. Leon (site moderator)

  • krishwaecosse
    5 months ago

    The difference between an asthma attack and a flare up of asthma is one that I found myself and a physician disagreeing on once. Needless to say I haven’t seen him again.
    I had a fairly rubbish asthma attack which stopped me in my tracks and saw me trying to selfmedicate before calling for additional help. Upon discussing this with the doctor the following week he said oh so you had a flare up of your asthma symptoms. Well …that was one way to put it.
    I now rarely use the words asthma attack when dealing with health care professionals due to his attitude.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    5 months ago

    Hi krishwaecosse, and thank you for joining in the conversation here. It’s good to hear you were assertive by looking for another physician. A partnership between physician and patient will generally insure that one’s asthma is under maximum control.
    Are you satisfied with your current medical practitioner?
    Leon (site moderator)

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    5 months ago

    Glad to hear it, krishwaecosse. Thanks for letting us know. Leon (site moderator)

  • krishwaecosse
    5 months ago

    Yes thank you

  • Shellzoo
    5 months ago

    I always have a cough and every morning mucous so I consider that part of my asthma but not an attack or flare but just a daily symptom. Once in a while I will notice I feel tight when I breath or a wheeze or two. I use my rescue inhaler and it is gone. I am not sure I consider that a flare either. Just a reminder my airways are sensitive. After a cold or exposure to a big trigger like going to a dog show, I will get the horrid cough, wheezes and feel like I am zapped of energy. That would be my flare-ups and that I seek my provider to get treatment. Then there are the rare I can’t seem to move air attacks. They seem to come out of the blue. That is go to the ER time. I do my best to avoid that by being consistent with my inhalers and meds. I used to downplay my symptoms when seeing my provider and am getting better at being more honest about how I am breathing and feeling. Working with my provider has really helped me see improvement and get good asthma control. Good article and I am curious to see how others define the differences between flare-ups and attacks. Asthma is so unique to the patient.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    5 months ago

    Hi Shellzoo and thanks for your comment and response to John’s excellent review of terminology for this aspect of asthma. You are so right about asthma affecting everyone differently. I thought this article by our own Theresa Cannizzaro, underscores that very point of view: We appreciate your consistent input on our asthma. net website. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

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