Asthma affects about 23 million people in the United States, 7 million of whom are children. It is one of the common chronic airway problems that is not related to an infection. Although asthma can be well managed with drug therapy, asthmatics are still advised to take responsibility for their condition and make the appropriate lifestyle changes where and when necessary. One of these conservative measures is to avoid factors that may trigger asthmatic attacks. The exact trigger may not always be obvious but there some common triggers that affects the majority of asthmatics.
There are several different types of asthma but the most common is atopic or allergic asthma. This means that the inflammation in the airway is due to an abnormal immune reaction to otherwise harmless substances. The immune-mediated hypersensitivity that occurs in allergic asthma is similar to other conditions like allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and other common allergic diseases. In asthma, most of the triggers are inhaled substances (allergens). These are common substances in the environment that is usually harmless to a person without an allergy.
Airborne Allergens at Home
Some of the most common triggers of asthma are actually found within the home. These include animal hair/fur (dander), house dust mites, cockroaches and mold (fungi). Pollen can also be a trigger in some people. Although all of these allergens may also be found at work, school and other places, the longest duration of exposure usually occurs at home. It is important to ensure that animals do not live in the home if there are asthmatics in the household. Thoroughly cleaning with a vacuum cleaner is necessary. Insecticide sprays should be used with caution as it can also trigger asthmatic attacks. Other forms of pest control must be investigated. Simple measures like regularly changing bed linen and turning the mattress over regularly can minimize house dust mite exposure.
Foods and Drinks
Inhaled allergens are by the far a bigger trigger than ingested allergens (food and drinks). Nevertheless asthmatics should take note of individual dietary substances that can be a problem. Common allergic foods include peanuts and shellfish, and children may also be sensitive to wheat, dairy, soy and egg yolk. The latter do not often cause an exacerbation of asthma symptoms as it does with atopic dermatitis (eczema) but should be avoided if a definitive link between eating these foods and the onset of asthma symptoms is noted. A much bigger dietary issue for asthmatics are foods and drinks containing sulfites and preservatives. It is often found in heavily processed foods like deli meat, crisps and so on. A food diary can be very helpful in identifying specific foods and drinks, or just certain brands that can be a problem.
Most asthmatics will find that cold air can be a trigger and even exacerbate existing asthma symptoms. It is not only winter that is a problem but even being in an air conditioned building where the temperate is significantly low. Dry air is also a problem for many asthmatics, particularly if it is cold. Both instances can be remedied by using artificial heating within the home and electric humidifiers to increase the moisture content in the air. Seasonal exacerbations in asthma may not always be due to the climate changes. Instead the pollen content may be higher than normal or cockroach populations may have increased. Therefore it is important to implement multiple strategies in avoiding many asthma triggers and not only focus on one specific type of trigger.
Respiratory Tract Infections
Asthma tends to worsen during respiratory tract infections like the common cold. In some mild cases of asthma, patients may only noticed the symptoms arise during an infection. It is important to note that these infections are not the cause of asthma but simply a trigger. Asthma symptoms may also exacerbate during other acute illnesses, even when the disease does not involve the respiratory tract specifically. Avoiding infections like the cold is important. Basic hygiene and minimizing contact with people who are ill is helpful but will not necessary help an asthmatic avoid the infection entirely. Vaccines when available and prompt medical treatment once the infection arises is crucial to minimize the impact on the asthma.
Exercise and Emotions
Physical activity may trigger asthma symptoms, but not in every asthmatic. Patients with exercise-induced asthma should be particularly cautious although this phenomena can arise with any type of asthma. Parents of asthmatic children may find that a mild asthmatic attack starts up after vigorous play. It may not always be possible to avoid all physical activity but patients at risk should be cautious. Just as significant is the effect of emotions and psychological stress which can also trigger or worsen existing asthma. Any strong emotion, from anger to excitement and joy, can trigger an asthmatic attack particularly in poorly managed cases of asthma. Psychological stress, whether short term or prolonged, can also play a role. Stress management should therefore an important part of asthma management.
Cigarette Smoke and Air Pollutants
Cigarette smoke is a one of the major triggers for asthmatics. Even if an asthmatic is not a cigarette smoker, secondhand smoke can be just as detrimental. Smoking within the house should not be allowed if there are any asthmatics in the household. While exposure to cigarette smoke can be controlled, it is not as easy with air pollution. Studies have shown that the severity of asthma and frequency of asthmatic attacks are higher in heavily industrialized areas where air pollution is a problem. The options are limited apart from relocating to another area. Air conditioning units with air purification filters may offer some relief but it is difficult to avoid going outdoors and being exposed to pollutants. Fortunately legislation in many countries limits the extent of air pollution in a vicinity although this may not be enough for asthmatics.
Acid Reflux in Asthma
It has come to light in recent years that acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease/GERD) may play a major role in triggering asthmatic attacks and worsening the condition. The problem is not limited to adolescents and adults but even young children and babies may have a problem with acid reflux and its effects on asthma. Therefore acid reflux should be medically treated and constantly managed when present. It may involve the use of medication but dietary and lifestyle changes are just as important. Eating many smaller meals in a day rather than a few big meals, avoiding problem foods that cause acid reflux, not eating for about 2 to 3 hours before bedtime and moderate exercise can be helpful in controlling acid reflux beyond GERD medication.