What causes your airways to become inflamed, swollen, and easily irritated? A trigger is anything that causes the airway to tighten or twitch. It can be an infection, irritants such as smoke or air pollution, allergens in the air, strenuous exercise, or strong emotions. Each person’s asthma is unique and reacts to different triggers.
In most cases, triggers are found in the air we breathe – especially allergens, which can cause an allergic reaction that increases inflammation and sets off asthma symptoms. By knowing the allergens that you react to, you can take actions to avoid them and prevent your airways from becoming inflamed and swollen.
Reducing exposure to your asthma triggers is the first important step in keeping your airways open and managing your asthma. Following are the most common things that trigger asthma. Don’t be intimidated by the full list – most asthma patients react to a few, not all of them.
House dust contains a potent mixture of dirt and allergens, from dust mites and mold to animal dander and insects. Breathing dust particles can irritate inflamed airways, as well as set off allergic reactions.
Dust mites are tiny insects, not visible to the naked eye. They require two things to live: human dander (the skin flakes that people naturally shed) and moisture. Dust mites live in mattresses, pillows, carpets, bed covers, and upholstered furniture, and their allergens easily settle in furnishings and house dust.
How can you control dust mites?
- Vacuum regularly with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air)-filtered vacuum.
- Cover mattresses and pillows with special dust-mite-proof encasings, to keep allergens out of your airways while sleeping.
- Wash bed linens, sheets, and covers every week in hot water (at least 130o F).
- If possible, get rid of carpets, extra pillows, and upholstered furniture, especially in your bedroom.
- Limit stuffed animals in children’s rooms; use only those that can be washed weekly in hot water (at least 130o F).
- Dust often.
- Keep humidity levels in your home below 50%; use a dehumidifier in damp areas, such as basements.
Molds can be found almost anywhere that moisture and oxygen are present. They live both indoors and outdoors. The key to managing molds indoors is to reduce moisture throughout your home.
- Keep humidity at less than 50% to discourage mold growth. If needed, use a dehumidifier, especially in basements.
- Repair water leaks wherever they occur, such as around pipes or in the walls or ceilings. Watch out for mold in areas where water is normally present, such as around and under sinks and in bathtubs and showers.
- If mold is visible on a surface, clean it with fungicide or a bleach and water solution.
All warm-blooded animals produce dander (shedding skin, fur, and feathers), urine, saliva, and droppings – all of which contain allergens that can trigger allergy and/or asthma symptoms.
How can you minimize these allergens?
- Don’t have furry pets in your home.
- If you do have a pet, keep it out of your bedroom and off upholstered furniture.
- Consider using HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters in your heating and air conditioning system and replace them monthly. Be sure they are sized correctly for your system.
- Keep pets off carpets as much as possible.
- Wash pets weekly and brush them outdoors, away from people with pet allergy.
Cockroaches leave droppings behind that contain potent allergens. Cockroach allergies are a particular concern for people living in big cities.
If you live in a building with cockroaches:
- Keep your house clean and food in tight containers.
- Repair water leaks.
- Use traps and poison baits to control cockroaches. Sprays can be irritating to your airways.
- If spraying is necessary, use a professional service regularly and leave your home until any odor has cleared.
Cigarette, pipe, and cigar smoke has a severe effect on asthma. In fact, children who live in homes with adults who smoke are far more likely to have asthma problems and ear infections. If you or someone in your family has asthma, the best solution is to not smoke at all.
Additional ways to prevent smoking from triggering asthma include:
- Never allow anyone to smoke in your home, in your car, or around people with asthma.
- If your state allows smoking in public places, eat in restaurants that do not allow smoking.
- Ask smokers to wear a shirt or jacket while smoking outside that can be taken off upon returning inside.
Tree, grass, and weed pollens and outdoor mold can trigger asthma, as can air pollution, smoke, and car exhaust.
How can you prevent exposure to outdoor triggers?
- Keep the doors and windows to your house shut, with heating or air conditioning running, particularly during times when outdoor triggers are present.
- Avoid outdoor activities during high pollen or ozone hours.
- If allergic to pollen, use allergy medicines to reduce reactions.
- Shower to wash away pollen when you come inside after spending time outdoors.
Strong smells from paints, sprays, cleaning fluids, garden chemicals, scented candles, perfumes, lotions, hair sprays, and deodorants can trigger asthma problems. The best solution is to avoid these scents whenever possible.
- Stay away from your home when chemicals, paints, or sprays are in use and until the smell clears away.
- Don’t use scented products on your body or in your home.
Weather conditions can affect airways of people with asthma. Usually this happens when the temperature is very hot, very humid, or very cold and dry.
What can you do to reduce weather triggers?
- Avoid outdoor activity when the weather is very hot, very cold, or very humid.
- Wear a scarf around your mouth and nose to warm the air you breathe and protect your airways when you must be out in cold, dry weather.
Respiratory viruses and sinus infections can make asthma worse. In fact, viral infections such as cold and flu are the most common triggers in young children and can be just as dangerous for adults.
What can you do?
- Get a flu shot every year and ask your health-care provider about whether you should have a pneumonia vaccine.
- Be sure you and everyone in your household wash hands frequently.
- See your health-care provider for immediate treatment if you suspect an infection. Often, you will need more of your regular asthma medicines until the infection clears.
- Don’t ignore a drippy nose. Talk to your health-care provider about medicines you can take to reduce the drainage.
- Don’t share toothbrushes or toothpaste when you have a cold.
- If your child gets viral infections every year, ask your health-care provider about asthma medicines before the flu season to prevent asthma attacks.
Food and Medicine Allergies
Many people with asthma report problems with eating certain types of foods. This is especially true of foods that contain sulfites, such as beer, wine, shrimp, and processed potatoes. Some medicines can also cause problems, especially aspirin and beta-blockers, which can be contained in some heart medicines and eyedrops.
How can you deal with food or medicine allergies to prevent airway inflammation or swelling?
- Talk with your health-care provider or pharmacist about all prescription or over-the-counter medications you take, as well as vitamins and herbal supplements to find out if any of them could affect your asthma.
- Stay away from any food or medicine that makes your asthma worse.
- Be careful to avoid eating foods that contain sulfites.
- Read food labels.
- Use substitute medicines when appropriate, such as acetaminophen instead of aspirin.
While exercise is important for all people, some people with asthma find it triggers asthma symptoms.
What can you do to prevent this?
- Do warm-up and cool-down exercises 5 to 10 minutes before and after strenuous exercise.
- Talk to your health-care provider about medicine you can take 15 to 30 minutes before exercising to prevent asthma symptoms.
- Talk to your health-care provider about your symptoms if they persist when you exercise, as they may be caused by non-asthma-related conditions (such as vocal cord dysfunction), or you may need additional medication.
Remember that regular exercise can improve your lungs and overall health. So don’t assume you should discontinue exercise if it triggers your asthma. Instead, work with your health-care provider to develop a safe and healthy exercise program.
Stress and Emotions
Stress and strong emotions are common asthma triggers. Some people find that laughing or crying can set off symptoms, and research also indicates that stress – especially chronic stress – can increase inflammation.
How can you reduce stress?
- Think about the different events or situations in your life that cause you to feel stressed and take steps to reduce them wherever possible.
- Use stress management techniques, such as meditation and yoga.
- Develop a regular exercise program and healthy eating habits.
- Spend time with friends and family, as research shows healthy social interaction reduces stress.
Reflux and Heartburn
Heartburn is a common term for reflux, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), that causes a burning sensation in the chest. It is caused by stomach acids or foods coming up into the food pipe or swallowing tube, known as the esophagus. Although many are not aware of the connection, GERD is a common asthma trigger.
What can you do to reduce reflux or heartburn?
- Some lifestyle changes can help, such as avoiding certain foods, alcohol or tobacco, or sleeping with your head slightly elevated.
- Talk with your physician about medications that control acid in your stomach.
To learn more, visit the CHEST Foundation at chestfoundation.org/asthma.