All asthmatics regardless of their perceived severity, are at risk of exacerbation, particularly if they are suboptimally treated in the outpatient arena. Fortunately most patients recover after administration of bronchodilators and anti-inflammatory medications, but preventable deaths continue to occur and refractory cases result in hospitalization and need for mechanical ventilation. We begin this article by reviewing the pathophysiology of acute exacerbations to build a foundation for the assessment of clinical status and to provide the rationale for a carefully contemplated and evidence-based therapeutic approach. We end this article with an in-depth examination of the particular problems that are encountered during mechanical ventilation and offer a strategy that helps minimize complications. In the final analysis, however, the greatest gains in the field of acute asthma will come not from its treatment but from its prevention by enhanced educational and environmental efforts and by the delivery of optimal medications at home.