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Dealing With Asthma Triggers

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD

What's an Asthma Trigger?

Triggers are things that make a person's asthma worse. Being exposed to your triggers — for example, pet dander, exercise, or smoke — can lead to an asthma flare-up with coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Different people have different triggers. Some 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 triggers as they get older.

Common triggers include:

  • respiratory infections, like colds, the flu, or COVID-19
  • allergens (things that cause allergic reactions, like animal dander and pollen)
  • irritants in the air (like perfume, smoke, and air pollution)
  • weather conditions
  • exercise
  • strong emotions

How Can I Avoid Infections?

Colds, the flu, and COVID-19 are hard to avoid. The best way to protect yourself from these and other illnesses is to wash your hands well and often and avoid people who are sick.

An annual flu vaccine and an updated COVID-19 vaccine are recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older. This is extra important for people with asthma, who are at greater risk for serious problems if they get these infections. Ask your doctor about what to do if you start to feel like you're getting a cold or the flu.

How Can I Deal With 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.

Avoiding allergens is the first step. 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 ideas. If you have allergies that make your asthma worse, you might need to take allergy medicine or have allergy shots. Your doctor will let you know.

How Can I Deal With 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 smoke 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 non-aerosol version of it.

If smoke is a trigger, you'll need to steer clear of secondhand smoke. Ask smokers not to light up near you, or move away from them while they smoke. Fires in a fireplace or woodstove can be a problem too, so do your best to avoid them.

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

How Can I Cope With Weather Changes?

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.

What Is Exercise-Induced Asthma?

Many people with asthma feel symptoms come on when they exercise or play sports. Some people with asthma have exercise as their only trigger. Along with allergens and respiratory infections, exercise is one of the more common triggers.

But 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 what to do before, during, and after exercise.

What if Emotions Trigger My Asthma?

For some people, strong emotions and reactions — like crying or feeling stressed — can bring on asthma symptoms. To manage strong feelings, it can help to get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and eat healthy. If your stress feels too strong, happens too often, or feels like more than you can handle, talk with your parent, doctor, or other trusted adult to get help and support. It also might help to talk to a mental health provider like a therapist.

What Else Should I Know?

There's one thing that anyone with asthma should do no matter what their triggers are: Keep the asthma medicine they use for quick relief of symptoms with them at all times.

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: March 2024