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What Causes (Triggers) Asthma?

Triggers of asthma
Asthma symptoms can be triggered by several factors, including:

  • Allergens
  • Irritants such as tobacco smoke, strong odors
  • Weather changes
  • Viral or sinus infections
  • Exercise
  • Reflux disease (Stomach acid flowing back up the esophagus, or food pipe)
  • Medications
  • Foods
  • Emotional anxiety

Every person has their own triggers. If you have asthma you can minimize your symptoms by avoiding the factors that trigger your symptoms, and by working with your physician to develop an effective management and treatment plan.

Allergic rhinitis, or "hay fever," is a risk factor in developing asthma. Symptoms of both allergic rhinitis and asthma can be triggered by allergens - any substance that triggers allergies. These include:

  • Pollens
  • Molds
  • Animal dander
  • House dust mite
  • Cockroach droppings
  • Foods

If your asthma is triggered by allergens, it is important to avoid exposure to them. See your allergist/immunologist for recommendations on control measures to help avoid allergens.

Inflamed asthmatic airways are hyper-sensitive to environmental irritants. Irritants that can trigger and aggravate asthma include:

  • Air pollutants such as tobacco smoke, wood smoke, chemicals in the air and ozone
  • Occupational exposure to vapors, dust, gases or fumes
  • Strong odors or sprays such as perfumes, household cleaners, hairspray, cooking fumes (especially from frying), paints or varnishes
  • Other airborne particles such as coal dust, chalk dust or talcum powder
  • Changing weather conditions, such as changes in temperature and humidity, barometric pressure or strong winds

All of these irritants can aggravate asthma, particularly tobacco smoke. Several studies have reported an increased incidence of asthma in children whose mothers smoke. No one should smoke in the home of an asthmatic.

Viral infections such as colds or viral pneumonia can trigger or aggravate asthma, especially in young children. These infections can irritate the airways (nose, throat, lungs, and sinuses), and this added irritation often triggers asthma flare-ups. Additionally, sinusitis - an inflammation of the hollow cavities found around the eyes and behind the nose - can trigger asthma.

Strenuous physical exercise can also trigger attacks. Mouth breathing, exercising in cold, dry air, or prolonged, strenuous activities such as medium- to long-distance running can increase the likelihood of exercise-induced asthma (EIA). For more information, please see the Tips brochure in this series or speak to your allergist/immunologist.

Reflux disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acid flows back up the esophagus, can affect patients with asthma. Symptoms include severe or repeated heartburn, belching, night asthma, increased asthma symptoms after meals or exercise, or frequent coughing and hoarseness. GERD reflux treatment is often beneficial for asthma symptoms as well.

Some adults with asthma may experience an asthma attack as a result of taking certain medications. These can include aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen; and beta-blockers (used to treat heart disease, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, or glaucoma). Before taking any over-the-counter medications, those with asthma should consult their physicians.

For some, eating certain foods or various food additives can trigger asthma symptoms. Culprits include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. If any of these foods triggers asthma attacks, the best remedy is to avoid eating them.

Emotional Anxiety
Emotional factors alone cannot provoke asthma. However, anxiety and nervous stress can cause fatigue, which may also increase asthma symptoms and aggravate an attack. As with any other chronic health condition, proper rest, nutrition and exercise are important to overall well-being and can help in managing asthma.

Copyright © 2008-2010 Dr. Beth Cowan