Asthma Triggers and How To Manage Them

Asthma Triggers and How To Manage Them


Asthma is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and tightening of the airways which can cause symptoms like difficulty breathing, wheezing, and coughing. Asthma is a common condition and affects more than 4 million children and over 20 million adults in the United States.

Researchers don’t exactly know why some people develop asthma, but studies have identified some factors that may increase your risk of experiencing symptoms. For example, if you live with allergies or have a parent with asthma, you may be more likely to experience the condition yourself.

Many other factors can also trigger worsened symptoms and asthma attacks. Knowing your triggers can help you prevent exposure to them, which may improve symptoms and your overall quality of life.

Smoking tobacco via cigarettes or vapes can irritate your airways and worsen your asthma symptoms. People who smoke or had a parent who smoked during pregnancy may also be at a higher risk of developing asthma.

Being a smoker isn’t the only trigger for asthma attacks. If you’re exposed to secondhand smoke (or, inhaling smoke from someone smoking near you), your asthma symptoms can also get triggered.

How To Manage

Quitting smoking is not an easy process. Many people may need to make multiple attempts before fully breaking the habit. Fortunately, there are ways to stop smoking if that’s a goal for you.

Your healthcare provider is a good resource to go to for advice on how to improve this habit. They can help you manage withdrawal symptoms and recommend therapies like nicotine replacement therapy. You can also get information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which provides resources to help people who want to quit.

Trying to limit secondhand smoke can also pose certain challenges, especially if you live with someone who smokes or in an environment where people smoke in public places nearby. To help remove secondhand smoke from your home, consider speaking to your loved one about avoiding or limiting smoking around the house. When you’re outside, do your best to avoid spaces where people are smoking.

Dust mites are tiny, insect-like pests that live in house dust and feed off dead human skin cells. These bugs are present in many homes and can trigger asthma attacks in people with allergies who have asthma.

Mild dust mite allergies can cause watery eyes, occasional sneezing, and a runny nose. However, more severe cases can lead to a more serious and persistent cough, nasal congestion, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing.

How To Manage

The best way to deal with dust mite allergies is to avoid exposure to dust mites. To significantly reduce dust mites in your home, you can:

  • Vacuum your floors, rugs, and carpets by using a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter if possible
  • Consider replacing rugs and carpets with hard-surfaced flooring, especially if you don’t use a vacuum with a HEPA filter or are unable to vacuum regularly
  • Use dehumidifiers and air conditioning to keep the humidity levels in your rooms below 50%
  • Remove unnecessary clutter to reduce the number of places dust mites can hide.
  • Wash your mattress, pillowcase covers, and curtains in hot water at least once a week

Although it may be impossible to eliminate dust mites in your environment you can take steps to alleviate symptoms. Consider speaking to a healthcare provider about getting over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications, such as antihistamines and allergy shots, to help control your asthma symptoms and keep dust mite triggers at bay. 

Molds are microscopic fungi that are a part of the natural environment and can grow indoors and outdoors. Excess moisture in dark spaces is the most common reason mold grows. They usually form and spread on damp or decaying organic matter, so keep your environment clean and dry.

When you inhale mold, this allergen can trigger asthma attacks, even if you’re not allergic. Sometimes, mold can go undetected. That said, if you notice you are feeling sicker at work or home, it may be a good idea to try to have the space inspected for mold by a professional.

How To Manage

Molds may appear harmless, but inhaling them over extended periods can greatly reduce your overall well-being. To minimize your risk of asthma flare-ups, try to reduce mold exposure in your environment by doing the following:

  • Throw away items or food with mold growing on them
  • Dry damp items like clothes within 48 hours
  • Fix any water leaks promptly
  • Use a dehumidifier at home
  • Scrub molds off surfaces using a brush, detergent or soap, and hot water
  • Open the windows regularly to air out your home

Pollen can cause allergic reactions in some people and trigger asthma attacks in those with asthma. If you are allergic to pollen, your symptoms will often be seasonal since you are most likely exposed to pollen from grasses, trees, and weeds only during the spring.

How To Manage

To help manage and reduce the effects of pollen on your asthma, consider the following strategies:

  • Keep your windows shut during pollen season
  • Use air cleaners with HEPA filters indoors to reduce indoor airborne allergens
  • Limit outdoor activities during pollen season
  • Change clothes when you come inside after being out
  • Start using allergy medications, with approval from your healthcare provider

About 10-20% of people worldwide are allergic to dogs and cats. Like pollen, animal dander is an allergen that can trigger an asthma attack. If you are allergic to animal dander, physical contact with your pet’s dead skin cells (dander) can trigger asthma symptoms.

How To Manage

To limit exposure to animal dander and prevent asthma attacks, try the following tips: 

  • Keep pets away from your bed, couch, and any other fabric furniture 
  • Ask a loved one without asthma and pet allergies to groom your pet regularly 
  • Change your clothes, wash them, and bathe after you spend time with your pet

Other outdoor pollutants (e.g., smoke and certain germs) and exposure to certain elements(e.g., ash, chemical fumes, and vapors), can also trigger asthma attacks. Ozone, the main component of smog, is another allergen that can raise the risk of asthma symptoms.

How To Manage

Although changing air quality is often not within your control, you can minimize the risk of exposure by avoiding working in environments where harmful chemicals are produced or wearing personal protective equipment (such as masks) when you are near them.

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the air quality index (AQI) in your area. You can often find this information on the weather app on your phone, but the local radio station, news channels, and online sources like AirNow are also helpful.

Staying physically active is an important part of your overall health. However, you should monitor how your body feels before and during exercise if you have asthma. Exercise and physically demanding tasks can trigger asthma symptoms if your body is not used to vigorous exercise. This phenomenon is called exercise-induced asthma or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB).

EIB occurs in 40-90% of people with asthma and up to 20% of people without asthma. This condition causes temporary narrowing of the airways, leading to symptoms like coughing, chest tightness, and wheezing within 15 minutes of a high-intensity exercise.

How To Manage

The thought of having exercise-induced asthma could discourage you from exercising, but physical activity can improve your lung health. Avoiding physical activity can also negatively affect your mental health. For example, getting less exercise can lead to a higher risk of certain health conditions and a lower quality of life. If you hesitate to exercise with asthma, you can engage in other physical activities that you enjoy.

Your healthcare provider can work with you to decide what types of exercise are best for you and recommend modifications and other treatments that make working out easier for you. You can also ask them how long you should exercise and which physical activities to limit or avoid.

Viral infections linked to colds, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can trigger asthma attacks in some people. It’s worth noting that experiencing viral respiratory infections in childhood can also increase the risk of developing chronic asthma later in life.

How To Manage

You may not be able to avoid getting viruses completely, but here are things you can do to minimize your risk of getting sick and triggering asthma symptoms:

  • Wash and sanitizing your hands frequently
  • Stay away from overcrowded places 
  • Wear face masks in public areas
  • Avoid contact with people who have a viral infection
  • Get your annual flu and COVID-19 vaccinations

It’s also important to follow an actionable asthma plan with steps to help you manage your asthma and respond appropriately when you encounter triggers. Typically this includes information like a list of your triggers, emergency contact numbers, medications that you use, and any other information that would be useful in an emergency. 

Stress, which can be in the form of strong emotions (such as anger and fear) or intense emotional instability, can cause rapid breathing and trigger asthma symptoms in some individuals.

How To Manage

While some stressors are out of your control, what you can manage is how you reduce your stress levels. To help you manage your stress, experts recommend trying activities like yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation—all of which can help you relax, stay mindful, and focus on other thoughts.

Consider reaching out to your healthcare provider or mental health professional if you are having trouble finding ways to manage emotional stress, as they can help you find stress management techniques that may work better for you.

People with obesity are at a greater risk of asthma. Some research suggests that excess adipose tissue (fat around the abdomen) can cause inflammation which can worsen asthma symptoms.

How To Manage

Eating low-calorie foods, cutting out refined and high-sugar foods, and being physically active can help you maintain a healthy weight that works for your body. These strategies can improve any obesity-related symptoms you’re experiencing, as well as lowering your risk of an asthma attack.

Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about your weight. They can help you explore possible contributing factors, including underlying conditions and medications.

Everyone experiences asthma a bit differently. As such, the above triggers are not an all-inclusive list of things that can trigger your asthma. That’s why it’s important to identify and keep track of factors that might trigger your symptoms. If the above items don’t trigger your asthma, other less common triggers may include:

  • Sinus infections
  • Cold and windy weather
  • Breathing in cold or dry air
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Pregnancy 
  • Strong odors such as from disinfectants or cleaning supplies
  • Certain medications, such as beta blockers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) drugs

What triggers asthma flare-ups varies from person to person. One important step towards managing your asthma is finding out what causes your symptoms.

Here are some tips to help you identify asthma triggers:

  • Take an allergy test
  • Observe when your symptoms occur and looking out for patterns
  • Write down your symptoms in a journal, including when and how often they occur
  • Monitor your lung function by and watching for symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest pain when you exercise
  • Get a medical diagnosis to rule out or determine any underlying conditions that could be triggering your asthma, such as GERD or sinus infections

With asthma, your lungs tend to be more sensitive to various environmental triggers, such as cold air, strong odors, and outdoor pollutants. These irritants can increase your risk of developing an asthma flare-up—or a period where your symptoms worsen. Fortunately, knowing your triggers can help you avoid them.

If you have asthma, it’s also a good idea to develop an asthma action plan with your healthcare provider to ensure you can keep your symptoms at bay wherever you are.

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