What triggers an asthma attack?

Intermountain Registered Dietitians
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

If you have asthma, your inflamed airways are “twitchy”—they overreact to irritants in your environment. A trigger is anything—a condition, a substance, an activity—that causes inflammation in your sensitive airways. A trigger makes your asthma worse or keeps it from getting better.

Different people have different triggers. Some common asthma triggers are allergies, chest colds, pollution and exercise. To control your asthma, you have to find out what your triggers are—and learn how to deal with them.



Dr. Lawrence T. Chiaramonte, MD
Allergist & Immunologist

Depending on what pollens they're allergic to, asthmatics may have increased symptoms during different times of the pollen season. For example, in New York City, there is an increase in asthma emergency room visits in the spring, a short time after the peak in tree pollen, as well as another smaller asthma spike in the late summer, about two weeks after the ragweed peak. Activity picks up again in October and November because of atmospheric inversions, molds from falling leaves and dust blowing around inside buildings when heating systems are turned on.

Asthma Allergies Children: A Parent's Guide

More About this Book

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,...

Common triggers for an asthma attack include:

  • tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke
  • respiratory infections, including the common cold
  • allergies
  • pets
  • mold
  • dust in the home
  • outdoor air pollution

Recognizing these triggers can prevent trips to the emergency room or serious episodes for both children and adults.

Administration Specialist

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: 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: Avoid areas where people are lighting up, and ask smokers to light up away from your house.
  • Exercise: 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: 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.
  • Scents and fragrances: Scented candles have long been on a list of indoor air pollutants that can trigger asthma attacks. Other culprits include smoke (both from cigarettes and wood-burning stoves), air fresheners, perfumes, gases, aerosol products and just about any airborne odor that irritates your lungs.

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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UCLA Health
Administration Specialist

Common asthma triggers include:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Dust mites
  • Respiratory tract infections
  • Mold
  • Cockroaches
  • Air pollution
  • Animal dander
Dr. Christopher M. Webber, MD
Allergist & Immunologist

Certain triggers cause the inflammation that causes asthma symptoms. For some people, it’s a problem with the lungs. This is called intrinsic (internal) asthma. For some people, there are other external (extrinsic) triggers of asthma, including the following:

  • allergies (pollen, pets and dust mites creating allergic asthma symptoms)
  • colds, flus and viral infections (creating infectious asthma symptoms)
  • cold air
  • exercise (creating exercise-induced asthma symptoms)
  • irritants (perfumes, smells and odors creating irritant asthma symptoms)
  • smoke (cigarette or even marijuana)

For almost all people with asthma, there is a combination of many of the above triggers.

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital
Administration Specialist

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
American Red Cross
Administration Specialist

A trigger is anything that sets off or starts an asthma attack. A trigger for one person is not necessarily a trigger for another. Asthma triggers include the following:

  • Dust and smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Respiratory infections
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Perfume
  • Exercise
  • Plants and molds
  • Medications, such as aspirin
  • Animal dander
  • Temperature extremes
  • Changes in weather
Dr. Paul M. Ehrlich, MD
Allergist & Immunologist

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

More About this Book

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,...

Many things can make asthma worse, but it often depends on what a child's triggers are. In this video, I will explain that allergies, colds and viruses are the most common triggers and can cause a child's asthma to flare.

Columbia University Department of Surgery
Administration Specialist

While causes of asthma have been linked to hereditary factors, it is clear that smoking, air pollution, exposure to dust and fumes and lung infections worsen the condition.

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
  • Infections linked to influenza (flu), colds and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • Acid reflux
  • Some medicines
  • Bad weather, such as thunderstorms or high humidity; breathing in cold, dry air
  • Foods and food additives
  • Fragrances

Strong emotions can lead to very fast breathing, called hyperventilation, that can also cause an asthma attack

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Dr. Brian D. Gelbman, MD
Pulmonary Disease Specialist

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. 

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.