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Dealing With Asthma Triggers

Matt and Kyle usually get together at Matt's house because Matt is allergic to Kyle's cat. Sara doesn't let anyone smoke around her because cigarette smoke brings on her asthma flare-ups. Ebony thought she'd have to quit playing soccer because of her asthma — until her doctor told her that using her inhaler before every practice and game can help her stay in peak shape on the field.

Matt, Sara, and Ebony have one thing in common: They're all managing their asthma by coping with their triggers.

What's a Trigger?

People with asthma have a problem with their airways (the breathing tubes in their lungs). Because of asthma, the tubes are swollen and full of mucus. This problem is made worse by things like animal dander, exercise, or smoke.

Triggers are substances, weather conditions, or activities that are harmless to most people. But in people with asthma, they can lead to coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Triggers don't actually cause asthma — no one knows exactly what does. But triggers can lead to asthma symptoms and flare-ups.

Different people with asthma have different triggers. That's why cats may give Matt an asthma flare up but have no affect on Ebony. Some people have one or two triggers; others have a dozen. Triggers are sometimes seasonal — like pollen in the spring. Some teens with asthma may stop reacting to certain asthma triggers as they get older.

Common asthma triggers include:

  • allergens (things that cause allergic reactions, like animal dander and pollen)
  • irritants in the air (like perfume, smoke, and air pollution)
  • weather conditions
  • exercise
  • colds or the flu

Allergens

Allergens are the things people can be allergic to, like mold; dust mites; cockroaches; pollen; and animal dander (skin flakes), saliva, urine, and feathers. Allergens are one of the most common asthma triggers. If you think you might have an allergy, talk to a parent or doctor about getting allergy testing.

In addition to other treatments for allergies, doctors recommend avoiding allergens. It isn't possible to avoid everything, but here are three tips to try:

  1. Keep your room as clean and dust free as possible. This means vacuuming and dusting weekly and getting rid of clutter. Your old stuffed animals and track ribbons may need to go into a box in the attic.
  2. Wash your sheets weekly in hot water and get rid of feather pillows and comforters. You can get special covers for your mattress, box spring, and pillows that will help too.
  3. Get rid of carpets and curtains. Rugs, carpeting, and other heavy fabrics can trap allergens that make you sick.

Your doctor can give you other helpful ideas.

If you have allergies that worsen your asthma, you might also need to take medication or have allergy shots. Your doctor will let you know.

Irritants

For most people, irritants aren't a serious problem. But for people with asthma, they can lead to flare-ups.

Common irritants include:

  • perfumes
  • aerosol sprays
  • cleaning products
  • tobacco and wood smoke
  • paint or gas fumes
  • air pollution

Even things that may seem harmless, like scented candles or glue, are triggers for some people.

If you notice that a household product triggers your asthma, ask your family to switch to an unscented or nonaerosol version of it. If smoke bothers you, people smoking around you will be a trigger. But a fire in the fireplace or woodstove can be a problem, too.

If outdoor air pollution is a trigger for your asthma, running the air conditioner can help. Check air quality reports on the news to monitor which days might be bad for you. On days when outdoor air quality is very bad, stay in air-conditioned comfort, whether it's at your house or the mall.

Respiratory Infections

Colds or the flu are hard to avoid. The best prevention is washing your hands regularly and avoiding people who are sick.

An annual flu shot is now recommended for everyone above the age of 6 months. This is especially important for people with asthma, who are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. Ask your doctor to include instructions on what to do if you start feeling like you're getting a cold or the flu.

Seasonal Allergies sidebar

Weather

Wind can stir up pollens and molds. Rain can wash pollen from the air, so the pollen count might be lower right after it rains. But lots of rain can make the trees and grasses produce more pollen later on. Very cold or very hot weather may trigger asthma. So can humidity or very dry air.

If you know that some kinds of weather make your asthma worse, follow the forecast. Take steps to protect yourself if you know the weather is going to cause problems for you. Your asthma action plan should say what to do.

Exercise

Some people with asthma have only one trigger: exercise. Along with allergens, exercise is one of the more common triggers.

Luckily, exercise is the one trigger you don't have to avoid. With help from their doctors, people with asthma can safely get the exercise they need to stay healthy and well. Talk with your doctor about special steps to take before, during, and after exercise.

There's one step you'll want to take no matter what your triggers are: Keep your quick-relief medicine with you at all times.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014