What Is a Flare Up?

Man holding chest after experiencing a flare up.

Flare-ups and acute exacerbations—what exactly do these terms mean? Suppose you or a loved one has a chronic lung condition like bronchiectasis or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). In that case, you may have heard your clinician use these terms interchangeably, or maybe you’ve required hospitalization because of them.

But what is a flare-up? More specifically, how do you know if you’re experiencing one and what should you do next?

In this article, we’ll explore the definition of a flare-up (i.e., acute exacerbation), its causes, and how to manage symptoms to avoid triggering one.


  • Flare-Up: A sudden worsening of disease or condition symptoms.¹
  • Exacerbation: An increase in the severity of a disease or its signs and symptoms.² Regarding pulmonary diseases like COPD, an acute exacerbation is a sudden worsening of airway function and respiratory symptoms.³

Are Flare-Ups and Acute Exacerbations the Same Thing?

Graphic icon of inflammation.You’ll often see these terms used interchangeably, as an exacerbation involves a flare-up (i.e., worsening of symptoms) to occur. However, you may also see the word “flare-up” used to describe a worsening of other pre-existing symptoms and conditions like arthritis, psoriasis, or eczema, where the disease already exists but has worsened due to certain triggers.

Both terms describe the same reaction our bodies have to triggers; the only real difference is that one (i.e., flare-up) gets used more frequently. As this is the case, we will also use these terms interchangeably in the sections below.

Chronic Conditions & Acute Exacerbations

Graphic icon of lungsChronic conditions are long-lasting health conditions that require ongoing management and treatment. As we mentioned, this includes permanent conditions like bronchiectasis, COPD, and asthma. Such diseases are irreversible, meaning there is no cure.

Acute exacerbations are sudden and severe worsening of symptoms associated with your chronic condition. For example, common symptoms of bronchiectasis and COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic cough
  • Wheezing
  • Mucus buildup
  • Respiratory infections

Patients will experience these symptoms individually and regularly. However, a sudden flare-up of symptoms (i.e., severe shortness of breath that makes it difficult to breathe and receive oxygen or exhale CO2) can create life-threatening scenarios where patients may require hospitalization.

These exacerbations can be triggered by a variety of factors, including:

      • Mucus buildup
      • Respiratory infection
      • Environmental irritants
      • Pollutants
      • Stress4

Asthma, for example, can be triggered by allergens such as pollen or pet dander, while COPD can be triggered by cigarette smoke or air pollution exposure. On the other hand, bronchiectasis, a condition that damages the lungs and airways, making it difficult to clear mucus out of the lungs, is often triggered by mucus buildup. Therefore, working closely with your healthcare team to identify your triggers and developing a management plan to prevent acute exacerbations is essential.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms

Graphic icon of chillsAt this point, you might wonder if bronchiectasis exacerbations, COPD flare-ups, and asthma attacks are the same. All three chronic lung conditions are different, so patients will experience symptoms and flare-ups individually.

Nevertheless, common flare-up signs may include sudden shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing. You may also experience extreme fatigue, dizziness (due to low oxygen), and other symptoms.

Again, working with your healthcare team can help you identify symptoms, triggers, and an action plan to be prepared if your condition worsens.

What to Do When You Experience a Flare Up

Graphic icon of stethoscopeIf you experience an acute exacerbation of a chronic condition, seek medical attention immediately. Delaying treatment can lead to further complications and even hospitalization.

Your healthcare provider may adjust your treatment plan or prescribe additional medications to manage the exacerbation. They may also recommend lifestyle changes or refer you to a specialist for further evaluation and treatment. Early intervention is critical to managing chronic conditions and preventing acute exacerbations.

Preventing a Flare Up

Graphic icon of medicationProper management of chronic conditions is key to preventing acute exacerbations. This includes following a treatment plan promoting airway clearance, taking medications as directed, avoiding triggers, and making lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking.

Monitoring symptoms regularly and communicating any changes to a healthcare provider is also important. By taking an active role in your healthcare journey, you can reduce the risk of acute exacerbations and improve your overall quality of life.

SmartVest Airway Clearance System

The SmartVest Airway Clearance System.The SmartVest system is an airway clearance therapy to help people with a chronic lung condition, delivering rapidly repeating pulses of air from a generator to a vest garment to gently squeeze and release the upper body, loosening mucus in the lungs so it is easier to cough out.

To learn more about SmartVest and Clearway, request an informational packet today! We also invite you to talk to one of our patient care advocates about getting started with SmartVest. They can walk you through your options, answer your questions, and help you take the next step in your airway clearance journey.

Request an information packet from SmartVest banner.


[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Flare Up.” Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flare-up

[2] RxList. “Definition of Exacerbation.” Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/exacerbation/definition.htm

[3] National Library of Medicine. “Acute Exacerbations and Respiratory Failure in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.” Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2645331/

[4] American Lung Association. “Coping with COPD and Anxiety.” Received from https://www.lung.org/blog/coping-with-copd-and-anxiety