Dealing With Asthma Triggers

When Matt and Kyle get together, it's usually at Matt's house. That's because Matt is allergic to certain pets and Kyle has a cat. Sara can't handle cigarette smoke — it can bring on an asthma flare-up. So she doesn't let anyone smoke around her.

Ebony, a star soccer player, thought she'd have to quit playing because of her asthma. With the help of her doctor, though, she found that using her inhaler before every practice and game helps her stay in peak shape on the field.

Matt, Sara, and Ebony have one thing in common: They're all managing their asthma by coping with their triggers.

What's a Trigger?

People with asthma have what's called a chronic, or continuing, problem with their airways (the breathing tubes in their lungs), which are swollen and full of mucus. This problem is made worse by asthma triggers, such as animal dander, exercise, or smoke.

Triggers are substances, weather conditions, or activities that are harmless to most people. But in people with asthma, they can lead to coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Triggers don't actually cause asthma (no one knows exactly what does cause it) but triggers can lead to asthma symptoms and flare-ups.

Every person with asthma has different triggers. That's why cats may cause Matt's asthma to flare up but have no impact at all on Ebony's. Some people have one or two triggers; others have a dozen. Triggers are sometimes seasonal and may even stop affecting a teen with asthma as he or she gets older.

Common asthma triggers include:

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

Coping With Common Triggers

Allergens are one of the most common asthma triggers. Allergens include mold; dust mites; cockroaches; pollen; and animal dander (skin flakes), saliva, urine, and feathers. If you think you might have an allergy, talk to a parent or doctor about getting allergy testing.

In addition to other treatments for allergies, doctors recommend avoiding allergens. It isn't possible to avoid everything, of course, but there are some things you can do:

  • 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.
  • Wash your sheets weekly in hot water and get rid of feather pillows and comforters. You can get covers for your mattress, box spring, and pillows that will help too.
  • Get rid of carpets and curtains. Rugs, carpeting, and other heavy fabrics can trap allergens that make you sick.

If you have allergies that worsen your asthma, you might also need to take medication or have allergy shots. Your doctor will let you know.

Irritants are different from allergens because they can also affect people who don't have allergies or asthma. For most people, irritants don't create a serious problem, but for people with asthma, they can lead to flare-ups. Common irritants include perfumes, aerosol sprays, cleaning products, wood and tobacco smoke, paint or gas fumes, and 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 nonaerosol version of it. If smoke bothers you, obviously people smoking around you will be a trigger. But a fire in the fireplace or woodstove can also be a problem.

If outdoor air pollution is a trigger for your asthma, running the air conditioner can help. You can check air quality reports on the news to monitor which days might be bad for you. Then, on days when the quality is especially bad, you can stay in air-conditioned comfort, whether it's at your house or the mall.

Respiratory infections like colds or the flu are harder to avoid. The best prevention is washing your hands regularly and avoiding people who are sick. An annual flu shot is now recommended for everyone above the age of 6 months. This is especially important in people with asthma, who are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. Ask your doctor to include instructions on what to do if you start feeling like you're getting a cold or flu.

Seasonal Allergies sidebar

Weather conditions can also trigger asthma symptoms. Wind may stir up pollens and molds. Rain can wash pollen from the air, decreasing the pollen count right after a rainfall. But lots of rain can stimulate the trees and grasses to produce more pollen later on in the season. Very cold or very hot weather may trigger asthma and so can humidity or very dry air.

If you know that certain weather conditions make your asthma worse, keep an eye on the forecast and take precautions on problem days. Your asthma action plan should also include steps to take if weather is affecting your symptoms.

Some people with asthma have only one trigger: exercise. Along with allergens, exercise is one of the more common triggers — 80% to 90% of people with asthma develop symptoms when they exercise. Fortunately, you don't have to avoid exercise in the same way you do other triggers. Doctors have discovered there are lots of things people with asthma can do that allow them to get the exercise they need to stay healthy and happy. Talk with your doctor about special steps to take before, during, or after exercise.

There's one step you'll want to take no matter what your triggers are: Keep your rescue medicine with you at all times.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2010
Originally reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, and Hemant P. Sharma, MD

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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