What Are Triggers?
By triggers we mean those things (such as pollen, mold, dust mites, and cigarette smoke) that can make your asthma worse. Someone who has asthma always has some swelling or irritation in the airways. Exposure to triggers can make this problem worse. Triggers are usually harmless to most people, but if you have asthma, triggers can cause coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
Asthma Triggers at Home
Because triggers are different for each person, you need to work with your doctor to figure out your specific triggers. If you think an allergy might be triggering your asthma, talk to your doctor about getting allergy testing to find out what you could be allergic to.
Once you know what's making your symptoms worse, you can work to get rid of that stuff at home. What you need to do will depend on what's triggering your symptoms. Some people are affected only by animal dander. Others might have several triggers, so it may take some time to figure out all the preventive steps that should be taken.
The Air Indoors
The air in your house could contain irritants such as tobacco or wood smoke, perfumes, aerosol sprays, cleaning products, and fumes from paint or cooking gas. All of these can trigger asthma flare-ups. Even scented candles or fresh newsprint are triggers for some people with asthma.
Air pollution, outdoor mold, and pollen are also common triggers that can travel inside, especially if you leave your windows and doors open in warmer weather.
To improve your indoor air quality at home:
- If you smoke, quit. If someone else in your household smokes, ask them to quit or at least do it outside.
- Avoid wood fires in the fireplace or woodstove.
- Ask your folks to switch to unscented or nonaerosol versions of household cleaning products and avoid scented candles or room fresheners.
- Run the air conditioning, especially on days when the pollen or mold count is high outdoors or when there are ozone or pollution warnings.
- If you must open up your house on days when the pollen count is high, do so after midmorning. Pollen counts are usually highest between 5 AM and 10 AM. If it is outside air quality that's a problem, open up in the early morning hours before pollution has had a chance to build up.
Dealing With Dust Mites
Dust mites, a common asthma trigger, are microscopic bugs that live in dust. Their diet consists primarily of shed human skin cells (gross, but true). There are lots of them in upholstered furniture, on some kinds of bedding, and in rugs. The highest number of dust mites in the home is usually found in bedrooms.
You won't be able to completely get rid of dust mites. You can take these steps to reduce your contact with them, though:
- Vacuum and dust your home (especially your bedroom) at least once a week. Ask your folks to buy a special small-pore filter bag for your vacuum or purchase a vacuum with a HEPA filter. When you dust, use a damp cloth to avoid spreading dust mites in the air.
- Stay away from feather or down pillows or comforters; get bedding made with synthetic (which means human-made) materials instead.
- Every few weeks, wash all of your bedding in hot water (greater than 130º F, or 54º C) and then dry it on a high setting.
- Cover your mattresses, pillows, and box springs with mite-proof covers (your doctor can tell you where to get these).
- Get rid of carpeting, especially wall-to-wall or shag carpeting in your room. If you have area rugs, make sure they are washable and wash them weekly in hot water.
- Clean up the clutter in your room. Get rid of knickknacks, picture frames, and stuffed animals that collect dust.
Molds are microscopic living things that are kind of like plants. They can grow on many surfaces and do especially well in damp places like bathrooms and basements. Molds reproduce by sending spores into the air. Inhaled mold spores are a common asthma trigger.
The key to controlling mold in your home is keeping things as dry as possible:
- Ask your folks to make sure that your bathrooms and basement are well ventilated.
- If you have any damp closets, clean them thoroughly and leave a 100-watt bulb on all the time to increase the temperature and dry out the air.
- Run a dehumidifier in the basement or other damp areas. If you do this, make sure you empty and clean the water pan often.
- Get rid of wallpaper and wall-to-wall carpeting in bathrooms and basement rooms.
- Run the air conditioner (this is especially helpful if you have central air).
- Get rid of houseplants, which may have mold in the soil.
- Clean mold or mildew you can see with a solution that is one part chlorine bleach to ten parts water.
- Replace or wash moldy shower curtains.
Coping With Cockroaches and Animals
Animals are a big asthma trigger; as many as 30% of people with asthma are allergic to one or more animals. These allergies are caused by a specific protein found in the animal's dander (skin flakes), saliva, urine, or feathers. Animal hair itself does not cause allergies, but it can collect dust mites, pollen, and mold. And any animal that lives in a cage, from birds to gerbils, will produce droppings that can attract mold and dust.
And pets aren't the only allergy-causing creatures at home — cockroaches are a major asthma trigger that can be difficult to avoid in apartments.
If you have a pet and you're allergic to it, your best bet is to find it a good home somewhere else. Of course, that's not possible for some people. If that's the case for you, try taking these steps:
- Keep pets outside. It's especially important to keep them out of your bedroom.
- Have someone else wash and brush your pet every week.
- Don't play with or touch your pet and stay far away from a cat's litter box.
- Ask other people in your household to wash their hands every time they touch your pet.
- If you have an animal that lives in a cage, keep it in a room that you don't spend time in regularly. Someone other than you should clean the cage daily.
They're not as cuddly, but fish are OK pets for people with asthma.
If cockroaches are a problem:
- Talk to your parents about getting the house professionally exterminated every few months. In between professional treatments, use bait traps to catch roaches (don't use aerosol sprays, which can aggravate asthma).
- Don't save boxes, paper bags, or newspapers.
- Don't leave open food or dirty dishes lying around your kitchen; keep counters free of crumbs or spills.
- Keep garbage containers closed and wash recyclables before putting them in the bin.
It can seem overwhelming to make your home trigger free, especially if you have multiple triggers. Here are five steps to take to begin.
- Put mattress covers on your bed.
- Get rid of carpeting.
- Reduce dust.
- Get rid of any pest infestations.
- Ban tobacco smoke.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2010
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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