If you have asthma, you know all too well how scary an asthma attack can be. If you don’t have asthma, it’s hard to fully appreciate what it’s like not to be able to breathe and the panic that can cause. As an allergist/immunologist asthma specialist, I hear statements like this a lot from my patients with asthma, which is why I offer this blog to help people understand what things can trigger an asthma attack and just as importantly, how to avoid them.
What exactly is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic disease in which the airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
It isn’t clear why some people get asthma and others don’t, but it could be due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Asthma can’t be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled by avoiding triggers, taking medication to prevent symptoms, and knowing how to treat an asthmatic episode (asthma attack) when it occurs.
Triggers than can cause an asthma attack
Irritants that can trigger the symptoms of asthma differ from person to person but here are the most common ones:
- Allergens (things you are allergic to)
- Dust mites
- Animal dander
- Food allergens
- Respiratory infections, such as common colds or the flu
- Viral infections of the nose and throat
- Other infections, such as pneumonia or sinus infections
- Irritants in the environment (air pollution)
- Cigarette/cigar smoke as well as other smoke
- Cold air and/or dry air
- Odors, fragrances, irritating compounds in sprays, and some cleaning products
- Wood burning stoves in the winter
- Exercise (exercise-induced asthma). Approximately 80% of people with asthma develop wheezing, coughing and a tight feeling in the chest when they exercise.
- Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB and others) and naproxen (Aleve)
- Sulfites and preservatives added to some foods and beverages, including shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine
Risk factors that can increase your chances of developing asthma
The #1 risk factor for developing asthma is having a parent with asthma. People with asthmatic parents are 3-6 times more likely to develop asthma than those whose parents do not have asthma. These include:
- A blood relative (parent or sibling) with asthma
- Having another allergic condition, such as atopic dermatitis or allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
- Viral respiratory infections
- Secondhand smoke
- Frequent exposure to exhaust fumes or other types of air pollution
- Exposure to occupational triggers, such as chemicals used in farming, hairdressing and manufacturing
12 best ways to avoid asthma triggers
Understanding what makes your asthma flare up is a key step to better managing this disease, and avoiding or limiting your exposure to these triggers can significantly lessen the symptoms and help you more consistently control your asthma. Here are the 12 best things you can do to avoid triggers:
Minimize your exposure to things you’re allergic to (allergens)
Exposure to allergens can increase the inflammation of your airways, making you more susceptible to an asthma attack. Therefore, I advise identifying your particular allergens and doing everything you can to avoid coming in contact with them.
Don’t smoke. In fact, avoid smoke of any kind.
Smoke and asthma are a bad mix. If you have asthma, you definitely should not smoke. Smoking always makes asthma worse. In addition, you should avoid all types of smoke in the air, such as secondhand cigarette or cigar smoke, vaping, e-cigarettes, incense, candles, fires and fireworks. Avoid public places that allow smoking. (For resources to help you stop smoking, refer to the “Help for quitting smoking” section near the end of this blog.)
Avoid getting colds
To try and stay well, avoid close contact with people who have a cold or the flu. Your asthma symptoms may get worse if you catch the infection from them. Remember to always wash your hands thoroughly after touching items that may have been handled by someone with a respiratory infection.
Allergy-proof your environment
Whether you’re at home, work or traveling, there are certain measures you can take to allergy-proof your surroundings and reduce the risk of inducing an asthma attack. For example, avoid eating in restaurants that allow smoking, and insist on smoke-free hotel rooms and rental cars. Reduce indoor irritants by using unscented cleaning products and avoiding mothballs, room deodorizers and scented candles.
Get a flu vaccine
Get a flu shot every year to protect against the flu virus, which almost always makes asthma worse for days or even weeks. People with asthma are more likely to have complications from the flu, such as pneumonia, and are more likely to be hospitalized because of the flu. Also, people with asthma who are over age 19 should get a pneumonia shot (Pneumovax) every 5-10 years. (People with asthma are twice as likely to get pneumococcal pneumonia, a common type of bacterial pneumonia.)
Consider allergy shots
Allergy shots (immunotherapy) may help prevent allergy symptoms and the worsening of asthma overall. With allergy shots, small doses of allergens are injected under your skin on a regular schedule. Over a period of time, your body hopefully becomes accustomed to the allergen and less reactive when exposed to it.
Reduce exposure to dust mites
Cover your mattress and pillows with special allergy-proof casings, wash your bedding in hot water every 1-2 weeks, remove any stuffed toys from your bedroom, and vacuum and dust regularly. Reduce the humidity in your house with a dehumidifier and remove carpeting in your bedroom.
Don’t have pets
If this is not possible, keep pets out of your bedroom. Also, consider putting a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in that room.
Get rid of roaches
Reduce cockroach infestation by regularly exterminating, setting roach traps, repairing holes in walls or other entry points, and not leaving food or garbage exposed.
Get rid of mold
Mold in homes is often due to excessive moisture indoors, which can result from water damage due to flooding, leaky roofs, leaking pipes or excessive humidity. To avoid this, repair any sources of water leakage and use exhaust fans in the bathrooms and kitchen to control indoor humidity. Add a dehumidifier in areas with high humidity. Scrub any mold contamination with bleach and water.
Reduce pollen exposure
You can decrease your exposure to pollen by using an air conditioner in your bedroom (with the vent closed) and leaving doors and windows closed during high pollen times.
Monitor the outside air
Diligently check air quality reports (radio weather forecasts or on the internet). When air quality is poor, stay indoors.
Help for quitting smoking
- Stop Smoking/American Lung Association
- Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke (CDC)
Concerned about your asthma? Come see us.
If you’d like information, advice and guidance for managing your asthma and the triggers that can make it worse, please make an appointment with Westchester Health to see one of our allergy specialists. We’ll examine you, evaluate your condition and symptoms, and together, decide on the best course of treatment going forward. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.