What are asthma triggers?
Asthma triggers are things that can bring on your asthma symptoms. Some people who have asthma have only one trigger while others have two or more triggers and your asthma trigger may be same or different from another person asthma trigger. When you have asthma, your airways are usually more inflamed and sensitive than someone who does not have asthma. This means that you are more likely to react to triggers than other people without asthma. When you know what your asthma triggers are and how to manage it, then you are more likely to have your asthma under control.
People with asthma have their personal set of triggers – it may be one or a mix of different asthma triggers.
You may sometimes react worse to your known trigger than you usually do. This may be because the sensitivity in your airways varies from time to time or because your symptoms are being brought about by multiple known asthma triggers at the same time.
How to find out what your asthma triggers are?
It is sometimes easy to tell what your asthma triggers are, for example, when your asthma symptoms start shortly after spending time with friends who are smoking. Other times it’s difficult to tell, for example, if your symptoms don’t start immediately after encountering your trigger because of delayed reaction or maybe because you can’t see your trigger e.g. if you trigger is dust mites. Keeping a diary of when symptoms occurred and things you have done around that period may help you spot a pattern and find out your asthma trigger.
Best ways to deal with asthma triggers
- Avoid those asthma triggers that are avoidable e.g. alcohol, cigarettes and pets.
- Reduce exposure to those you cannot completely avoid e.g. cold weather and pollution.
- Take your preventer medicine every day.
- Attend your asthma review with your doctor
Lists of asthma triggers
Below is the list of 18 things that can bring on your asthma.
Foods as asthma triggers
People with asthma who also have a food allergy are at more risk of having a life-threatening asthma attack. While people with asthma are advised to follow a healthy diet, a small number have problem with eating some foods that may trigger their asthma symptoms. Hence, they need to be careful with the foods they eat and completely stay away from foods that trigger their asthma.
When you have a specific food allergy and then encounter that allergen, you can have an allergic reaction. This allergic reaction can immediately bring on asthma symptoms.
Most food allergies start in childhood, even though some can be developed from adulthood. Let your doctor know if you suspect food might be one of your asthma triggers. Your doctor may;
- refer you for skin prick testing to find out if you have any food allergies.
- investigate which food may be causing your asthma symptoms. The doctor may:
- ask you to write down what you eat and the asthma symptoms you experience.
- work with you to avoid some foods to check if avoiding such foods would improve symptoms of asthma.
- investigate further to see if other things are responsible for your asthma getting worse
Most common food allergens
While people can develop an allergy towards any kind of food, certain foods are known to be associated with allergies. Common food allergens include:
- Sesame seeds
Common food sensitivities
- Histamine –can be contained in wine, smoked meat and yoghurt.
- Sulphites – common food preservative and present in processed meats and drinks such as beer, cider and wine.
Alcohol is not a very well-known asthma trigger. People react differently with alcohol, while some may experience asthma symptoms after a few sips, some may notice it after a few glasses, some may not get any asthma symptoms until the day after. Some others may not even have any symptoms at all.
Alcohol contains substances histamine and sulphite which can trigger asthma symptoms. Histamine is a naturally occurring protein that can be found in some foods and drinks. Histamines are also released by your body when you have an allergic reaction. You can read more about histamines here. Wine, especially red wine contains a very high quantity of histamines hence the most common trigger of asthma symptoms. White wine, beers and ciders can also trigger asthma symptoms.
Sulphites are used as preservatives to prevent browning and discolouration in some foods or drinks. Sulphites have also been used in winemaking to stop continued fermentation for centuries. You can read more about sulphites here
Spirits are thought to be more ‘asthma friendly’ because they do not have as much histamine and sulphite.
Research shows a link between strong emotions and worsening asthma symptoms. Grief, depression and panic attacks have been linked to asthma symptoms. It is not only negative emotions that trigger asthma symptoms. According to Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA) laughter is a main asthma trigger. A study by the American Thoracic Society also showed that half of the study participants found their asthma to be triggered by laughter.
Your risk of getting your asthma triggered is greatest when your emotions are strongest. This could be when you are stressed or excited about something.
You are more likely to have asthma symptoms triggered by your emotions if your asthma is flaring up, you are a child, teenager or a woman.
Asthma symptoms can be brought on by feeling and expressing strong emotions if you have asthma. How you breathe can change with a feeling of strong emotions even in those who do not have asthma. This change in your breathing can cause the muscles to tighten or increase your breathing rate.
Try to remain calm and take deep breathes slowly when angry, upset or stressed. Stress induced asthma attack can be reduced by good stress management. Mindful breathing and observation have been shown by studies to help reduce stress.
Asthma and stress
Stress can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms. There are many reasons people get stressed, but it is important to keep an eye on our stress levels. Remember to also have good sleep and diet as poor sleep and bad diet can worsen the problem.
You are more likely to react with your other asthma triggers when you are stressed. You are also more likely to get angry when you are stressed and trigger your asthma as anger is a known emotion that can trigger symptoms of asthma.
Stress may cause panic attacks. A panic attack is a period of sudden and intense fear. It triggers the release of a hormone called adrenaline in our bodies. This hormone can help us either flee or fight a danger and this response is popularly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. You also experience symptoms like tense muscles, fast heart rate, fast and shallow breathing. This increases your risk of getting your usual asthma symptoms.
Dust mites are tiny creatures that can’t be seen with the naked eye. They eat human skin cells and live in bedding, cushions, pillows, clothes, soft furnishings, curtains, soft toys and carpets. When you hear people say that they are ‘allergic to dust’ they most often are allergic to a specific digestive enzyme mainly found in dust mite droppings. Dust mite allergy can trigger asthma symptoms.
Symptoms you may notice include:
- Red itchy eyes.
- Runny or blocked nose
- Itchy throat or nose
- Watery eyes
- Post-nasal drip
- Tight chest
- Shortness of breath
Over half of people with asthma say that smoking can trigger their asthma. Breathing in smoke from other people smoking (known as second-hand smoke or passive smoking) can also trigger your asthma or even make you have an asthma attack. Smoking also worsens asthma in the long run as it causes permanent damage to the lungs. The smoke that triggers asthma can be from pipes, shisha, cigars and cigarettes that are rolled by hand.
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel in the bloodstream. They carry messages or signals to different parts of the body to exert their functions. You can read more about hormones here. The female hormones like luteinising hormone (LH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) progesterone and oestrogen play important roles during menopause, periods, puberty, pregnancy and labour.
According to research, girls and women with asthma observe a change in asthma symptoms. Some women observe worsening symptoms just before and during menopause and periods. More girls than boys have asthma during puberty even though more boys have asthma before puberty. Some women first develop asthma during pregnancy. Those who already have asthma may have improved, worsening or no changes to their asthma symptoms during pregnancy.
Recreational drugs and asthma
Taking recreational drugs can trigger asthma symptoms as drugs can cause stress, anxiety and depression, which have all been linked to triggering asthma symptoms. Evidence suggests that those who take drugs are less likely to take their asthma medication as prescribed. Not taking your asthma medication as prescribed can lead to an increased risk of having a life-threatening asthma attack.
Animals, pets and asthma
Animals can trigger your asthma symptoms. You may be allergic to one or more animals. Some animals that can trigger asthma symptoms include: Mice, Guinea pigs, Cats, Horses, Birds, Dogs Rabbits and Hamsters. You can develop an allergy to animals at any stage in life. This means an animal that you previously did not react to can trigger your asthma now.
While a lot of people think the fur and/or hair of the animals is the culprit of the allergy, people who are allergic to animals are actually allergic to the proteins present in the animal’s saliva, urine, dander (flakes of skin) or feather dust which is the smooth particles from the bird feathers.
When people who are allergic to these proteins breathe or touch them, their immune system tends to overreact and release a chemical called histamine, leading to an allergic reaction. Histamines are released by your body when you have an allergic reaction. You can read more about histamines here.
When exercise triggers your asthma
You can do exercise when your asthma is well managed. Evidence suggests that exercising improves asthma. Some people who have asthma get asthma symptoms when they exercise. You can get asthma attacks if these symptoms are not treated.
When you exercise, your pulse rate becomes faster and you breathe quicker and also through the mouth. This means breathing in colder and drier air into the lungs. This may cause the airways to become narrower and trigger asthma symptoms.
Allergy and Asthma; Pollen, hay fever
Hay fever is caused by allergens. An allergen is foreign substance that invades/enters your body through your skin, swallowing or through inhalation. In hay fever, the allergens are airborne which enter your airways through breathing.
When these allergens get into your airway, the white blood cells of your immune system produce antibodies against these substances. This process where your body overreacts to a harmless substance is referred to as hypersensitivity reaction.
The antibody your body produces is called immunoglobulin E (IgE). It is stored on special cells called mast cells. When these antibodies encounter the antigens, chemicals and hormones called mediators are released. One of such mediators is called histamine.
The most common allergens in hay fever are pollens. Pollen grains are fine to coarse powdery substances released from certain plant species.
Moulds and fungi
The other very common hay fever allergen is moulds. Moulds and fungi release spores into the air and some people are allergic to these spores. These spores can also trigger asthma symptoms. The number of spores indoors increase when temperature increases.
If you are allergic to spores from moulds or fungi, then try and get rid of any mould because if you breathe in mould or fungi spores, your immune system may over-react and cause you to sneeze, cough or have watery eyes.
Mould may be green, blue, black, white or yellow in colour with a musty or stale smell. It thrives in damp areas like bathroom or in places where food is prepared or stored. The spores from mould and fungi are not visible so to avoid the spores, you must avoid or get rid of mould and fungi altogether.
When sex triggers your asthma symptoms
Sex like other exercises can be an asthma trigger but with good asthma control, you can still maintain a good sex life. When you have sex like other exercises, your pulse rate becomes faster and you breathe quicker and through the mouth. This means breathing in colder and drier air into the lungs. This may cause the airways to become narrower and trigger asthma symptoms. Also having sex may include feeling more emotion and emotion can trigger asthma symptoms.
If you experience asthma symptoms while having sex, you need to be honest and tell your partner when need to stop and use your reliever inhaler. Always Keep it close by whenever you have sex.
Asthma symptoms can be triggered by sudden change in weather.
Hot weather can cause some people to experience more asthma symptoms. While it is not clear how this happens, some people think it’s because breathing in hot air narrows the airways to narrow, which then causes increased asthma symptoms like shortness of breath.
Cold air as asthma trigger
Asthma triggers like cold air are common. Cold weather or damp air can trigger asthma symptoms. Cold and damp weather increases the amount of mould and fungi which can trigger asthma symptoms.
Thunderstorms asthma/Thunder Pollen
Thunderstorms can trigger asthma symptoms and attacks. Thunderstorm asthma is triggered when a lot of small pollen allergen particles is released into the air with fast changes in wind, temperature and humidity. It is not clear how this happens, but people think it is because when it rains or is humid, pollen grains absorb moisture, bursts open and release smaller pollen allergens that enter the small airways of the lungs and trigger asthma symptoms or attack.
The pollen grains are spread by wind and strong winds can spread pollen grains over long distances. Whole pollens that are intact usually gets trapped in the upper airways and do not reach the lungs, but smaller pollen allergen particles get deeper into the small airways of the lungs and trigger asthma symptoms or attacks.
Colds and flu are asthma triggers
Colds and flu can trigger asthma symptoms. When you have a flu or cold, your airways become more inflamed. This inflammation can cause less air to get through and make it harder for you to breathe. This can trigger your asthma.
Chest infections and asthma
People with asthma are more likely to get chest infections than in people without asthma. Chest infections can make asthma symptoms worse because it causes the airways to be inflamed.
Asthma and chest infection both cause the airways to become inflamed so getting both will lead to much more inflammation which can trigger asthma symptoms or attacks.
Indoor asthma triggers
- Some indoor activities and household items are asthma triggers and can bring on your asthma symptoms.
- Open fires and wood-burning stoves releases particles known as PM2.5 that can irritate the airways and trigger asthma
- Burning coal releases sulphur dioxide (SO2) which can trigger asthma or bronchitis.
- Gas cookers releases smooth particles and nitrogen oxides (NO2) which can make your asthma symptoms worse.
- New furniture or flooring can irritate your airways and trigger your asthma symptoms as it has volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like formaldehyde which they are made from.
- Household cleaning products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can irritate the airways and trigger asthma
- Perfumes personal care products like perfumes, nail varnish hair sprays and deodorants can trigger asthma symptoms as a recent study showed that people who have asthma are more likely to be sensitive to chemicals and fragranced products.
- Cockroaches are asthma triggers: Studies in the US suggests that poor housing in urban areas where there are cockroaches pose a risk to people who have asthma who are allergic to them.
When the air is polluted, you breathe in harmful substances, and if you have asthma, you’re more likely to feel the effects because pollutants like particles present in smoke from wood, fumes from diesel, soot and dust can reach and irritate the airways and trigger asthma symptoms.
Frequently Asked Questions
can asthma be caused by smoking?
Smoking can trigger asthma symptoms. Click to visit section on asthma and smoking to read more.
Can asthma be caused by anxiety?
Anxiety can trigger asthma symptoms. Click to visit section on asthma and emotion to read more.
Can asthma be caused by stress?
Stress can trigger asthma symptoms. Click to visit section on asthma and stress to read more.
About the author
Nwasom is a pharmacy graduate and a pharmacist currently practising in the United Kingdom. I have great experience communicating with patients and their family as gained through working as a pharmacist in both the hospital and community pharmacy sector. I love writing so it was a natural thing to try and pass medical and health information on through writing.