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What triggers an asthma attack?

Obesity, exposure to fumes, irritants such as tobacco smoke, or rapid changes in temperature and humidity levels from going in and out of air-conditioned buildings during a hot summer can be asthma triggers. Other risk factors include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which many people have learned about from television advertising, although it is fairly common and no joke to those who suffer from it. Reflux occurs when stomach contents come back up the esophagus, or swallowing tube. These juices can either spill into the lung or irritate nerves in the esophagus. Chronic infections can also contribute to development of asthma. Bacterial lung infections have been linked to asthma.

At the Asthma Research Center in Denver, Dr. Richard Martin and his colleagues are expanding and clarifying the concept that infection plays a key role in the origin of chronic asthma, at least in some people. They have firmly established that Mycoplasma and Chlamydia, two kinds of bacteria that are very common and often cause pneumonia, are present in the airways of a large subset of asthmatics. This is intriguing research by a first-class doctor at a first-class institution, but it is a work in progress, so the clinical payoff, if any, remains years away.

Chronic sinus infection is associated with asthma attacks in some people. Their sinuses are inflamed. Some asthma patients develop sensitivity to aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen, and they tend to develop nasal polyps-mucous growths in the mucous membranes. Their asthma may be very difficult to manage.
Asthma Allergies Children: A Parent's Guide

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Asthma Allergies Children: A Parent's Guide

Asthma and allergies are at epidemic proportions. It doesn't have to be that way. Two experienced pediatric allergists tell everything a conscientious parent needs to know about these conditions,...
Asthma symptoms can be triggered by a variety of things and differ among each person. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, common asthma triggers include:
  • Acid reflux
  • Air pollution
  • Allergies to such things as dust mites, pet dander, mold, pollen, cockroaches, and certain foods
  • Cigarette smoke, including secondhand smoke
  • Cold, dry air
  • Medications including aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and beta-blockers (which are used to treat heart disease, high blood pressure, migraines, and glaucoma)
  • Running, playing, and exercise
  • Viruses and bacterial infections
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Allergy
First, if you have allergic asthma, your doctor needs to help you identify what you are allergic to and provide a comprehensive plan for limiting your exposure to your allergen, be it pet dander, pollen or dust. Here is a list of other possible culprits you may not have thought of:
  • Cold, dry air: If you notice your symptoms more when you're in cold, dry air, try to limit your time outdoors on chilly days. When you need to venture out, wrap a scarf over your mouth and nose to help warm and moisturize the air you breathe.
  • Tobacco smoke: It stands to reason that because cigarette smoke can wreak havoc on the lungs, it's really bad for asthma sufferers. Avoid areas where people are lighting up, and ask smokers to light up away from your house.
  • Exercise: Everyone should be physically active, including people with asthma. However, you should take precautions because exercise could trigger an attack. Minimize or avoid strenuous or prolonged activities, and don't exercise in cold, dry air. Ask your doctor what physical activities you can do safely.
  • Viruses: Respiratory infections can irritate the airways, making asthma worse. Wash your hands often to help keep germs to a minimum.
  • Stress and anxiety: Stress and anxiety don't cause asthma, but they can wear your body down or make your breaths more shallow, which could intensify asthma symptoms -- or trigger them. Have a couple of instant stress-reduction strategies in your pocket that you practice daily.
  • Food allergies and certain medications -- like aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and beta blockers -- may set off symptoms in some people, so keep a symptoms journal to help you track your triggers better.

By identifying all of your triggers and taking the necessary steps to minimize or avoid them, you'll be upping your chances for good symptom control.

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We don’t know for sure what causes asthma, but we do know that attacks are sometimes triggered by:
  • Allergens (like pollen, mold, animal dander, and dust mites)
  • Exercise
  • Occupational hazards
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Airway infections
(The presence of the CDC logo and CDC content on this page should not be construed to imply endorsement by the U.S. government of any commercial products or services, or to replace the advice of a medical professional. The mark “CDC” is licensed under authority of the PHS.)

There can be many triggers for an asthma attack, most commonly respiratory allergens (dust/mold), infections, acid reflux, changes in temperature/season and exercise. Watch pulmonologist Brian Gelbman, MD, describe common asthma attack culprits. 

What triggers an asthma attack?

Continue Learning about Asthma Causes

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.