When a person has asthma, the immune system responds to certain triggers, causing inflammation of the airways and the typical symptoms of asthma. These causes or triggers vary from one person to another, and one person may have a few or more of these triggers. In addition to the environmental triggers, there is also a genetic predisposition. An allergy specialist can help identify individual triggers using physical exams, lung tests, allergy tests, and other investigations. Keeping a journal is also helpful, as some triggers cause symptoms right away, while others lead to delayed episodes of asthma flare-ups. This article is all about the most common asthma causes and triggers.
How Does Asthma Happen?
The cause of asthma is multifactorial, meaning there are multiple factors that contribute to the development of this condition. These factors are broadly classified as genetic and environmental, as well as many risk factors that further increase the risk of asthma.
When looking at changes that happen in the respiratory tract, there are 4 processes that occur in asthma. The airways constrict (bronchoconstriction), they get inflamed, become hyperactive, and lastly, the airways remodel.
- Genetics. Scientists identified more than 100 genetic variations linked with increased susceptibility to asthma. Many of these genes are involved in the inflammatory response and the function of certain immune cells called T helper cells type 2 or TH2 .
- Environmental factors include allergen exposure, diet and so called perinatal factors. Among allergens, there is evidence that many household allergens like dust mites and cockroaches play a role in the development of asthma in adults and older children. Diets that are deficient in essential nutrients, particularly vitamins C, E and omega 3 fatty acids have also been associated with asthma and obesity, too. In terms of perinatal factors, young maternal age, poor maternal diet.nutrition can increase the risk of asthma, as well as prematurity, low birthweight and the baby not being breastfed.
Roughly 60% of asthma are so-called allergic asthma, where the same allergens that trigger allergies in a person will also trigger asthma. For this reason, it is important to get skin or blood tests to find out which substances you are allergic to and avoid them as much as possible. The most common allergens linked with asthma include dust mites, cockroaches, mold, pollen, and pet dander. Read this article to learn more about these allergens and tips to avoid them.
- Environmental irritants and weather changesA variety of substances found in the air can trigger asthma symptoms. These compounds do not cause allergies, but irritate the airways which are inflamed and more sensitive in those with asthma. For example, cigarette smoke , various air pollutants and chemicals, charcoal grills, dust and strong fumes or odors from paint or perfumes can all trigger or worsen asthma symptoms. Thunderstorm asthma is a form of asthma that is specifically triggered when a thunderstorm hits and the pollen counts and humidity are high. This happens because the pollen breaks down into smaller particles and is carried away by the wind, thus reaching the lungs easier. In other cases, cold, dry air or simply changes in the weather can trigger an asthma attack.
- Exercise.There is a well documented subtype of asthma called exercise induced asthma or exercise induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). Exercise and other daily activities that make your airways work harder can trigger symptoms in this case. Working out in cold air is a common trigger of exercise induced asthma. Symptoms do not develop right away when you start a workout, but after several minutes. Read this article to learn about exercise induced asthma, which exercises you should and shouldn’t try.
- Stress and strong emotions. Stress worsens virtually all diseases, and is particularly a trigger for asthma aggravation or a new asthma episode. Not only negative emotions such as anger and fear can act as triggers, but also positive emotions like laughter and excitement. This happens because stress and strong emotions change your breathing, and in case of asthma can trigger wheezing, and shortness of breath.
- Medical conditions. Having other medical conditions can certainly contribute to asthma aggravation. Among these conditions is worth mentioning infections like cold, influenza, pneumonia, sinus infections and sore throats. Allergies- including food allergies and anaphylaxis (particularly to sulphites), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sleep apnea, obesity, nasal polyps and acid reflux (GERD) can contribute to worsening of asthma too. Symptoms of asthma can also aggravate during pregnancy and in relation to menses, due to hormonal changes.
- Medications. Aspirin is a major trigger in up to 30% of people diagnosed with severe asthma and also in some people without asthma. When this sensitivity to aspirin (or other non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs) is associated with nasal polyps and sinus inflammation, the condition is known as the Samter triad. Besides aspirin and other non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs, beta blockers that treat heart diseases and high blood pressure can also make asthma harder to manage.
Watch these triggers, see if you can identify other ones, and try to eliminate as many as possible. Carefully read the food labels, because sulfites are hidden in many foods. Work with your doctor to have other medical conditions well managed, and adjust the medication, if drugs are a trigger.