Asthma Triggers

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You may find that your asthma symptoms get worse after you are exposed to certain things. Things that cause asthma symptoms to worsen are called “triggers.”1 You and your healthcare provider can work together to identify your triggers. If you are aware of your triggers, you can be prepared for times when additional treatments may be needed.

What are common triggers?

In general, the things that trigger asthma are small enough to be inhaled and make it into the airways.2 Once in the airways, they set off a reaction that leads to asthma symptoms: wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. When these symptoms start suddenly and get progressively worse, you may be having an asthma attack.1

Common inhaled triggers are:

Certain situations can also trigger asthma, such as exercise or emotional stress. For some people, certain medications and food additives trigger asthma symptoms.

How do I know what triggers my asthma?

The first step is to think about which of the common triggers you are exposed to. Some questions to consider:1

  • Do you have indoor pets?
  • Do you have moist or damp rooms in the house (eg, basement)?
  • Is there any visible mold in your house?
  • Have you seen cockroaches in your house?
  • Do your symptoms get worse at certain times of year?
  • Do you smoke? (For children, do caregivers smoke?)
  • Is a fireplace or wood-burning stove used in the home?
  • Are there unvented stoves or heaters in the home?
  • Have you done any recent renovations or painting?
  • Do you use strong-smelling perfumes, cleaning agents, or sprays?
  • Are your symptoms different at work and at home?

Your provider may also recommend allergy skin tests. These tests check if you react to allergens that are often found indoors all year long. Because you are exposed to these allergens all the time, these triggers can be hard to figure out based on history alone.1

The allergy skin tests are not always accurate. You may not react on the skin test to something that has triggered symptoms before. Or you may react to something on the skin test that has never bothered you. The results should be compared with what you have noticed in everyday life.1

Once I know what triggers my asthma, what should I do?

If possible, avoiding the trigger is the best strategy. By avoiding allergens, you will have less inflammation and fewer symptoms.1 You will need less medication.

You may need to make several changes to control the allergens in the home.1 Making just one change is rarely enough. For example, if you are allergic to dust mites, using an impermeable bedcover alone may help, but will not solve the problem. You may also need to wash your bedding in hot water each week or remove carpeting from the room.1 The specific steps will depend on the trigger.

One general recommendation is to start with things in your bedroom that trigger asthma.1 For example, keep pets out of the bedroom, if removing a pet from the home is not an option.

Can allergy shots help me?

Allergy shots are most useful for people when there is a clear link between an allergen and symptoms.1 Studies have shown that they are useful for allergies to grass, cats, dust mites, and ragweed. They are less helpful for cockroach or mold allergies. For certain grass allergies, under-the-tongue allergy treatments were approved by the FDA in 2014 as an alternative to shots.3

Treatment with allergy shots can take three to five years.1 The treatments are done in a physician’s office that is equipped to handle life-threatening reactions. These types of reactions are rare.

view references
  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Expert panel report 3 (EPR-3): Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma - Full Report 2007. Accessed 11/12/14 at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/guidelines/asthgdln.pdf
  2. Locksley RM. Asthma and allergic inflammation. Cell. 2010;140:777-783. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3134388/pdf/nihms284822.pdf
  3. US Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves first sublingual allergen extract for the treatment of certain grass pollen allergies. Accessed 1/6/15 at: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm391458.htm
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