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Asthma: Environmental Triggers

Updated on February 18, 2018

The overly sensitive airways of asthmatics can react to a wide variety stimuli, or triggers. Airborne irritants, such as dust, smoke, molds, pollens and animal dander, are common triggers for both allergy sufferers and asthmatics. For the most part, the suggestions outlined in Managing Environments can be very helpful in reducing the airborne asthma triggers in and around your home.

Other 'non-allergic triggers' also pose problems for asthmatics. Controlling these 'non-allergic triggers' by following the guidelines below may provide additional protection for those with asthma both at home and away.

Respiratory Infections

The most common trigger for asthma attacks, particularly in children, is upper respiratory infections. Common colds, sinus infections, and bronchitis (inflammation of the airways), are the main offenders. By preventing these infections, you can reduce the severity and frequency of attacks.

Preventing infection begins with preserving your immunity against viruses by maintaining good nutrition, managing stress and getting adequate rest. Reduce your exposure to viruses by avoiding others who are sick. Prevent the spread of cold germs and viruses by washing your hands frequently in hot soapy water. Finally, getting a yearly influenza vaccination may provide added insurance against viral infections.

Tobacco Smoke

One of the most serious environmental hazards for asthmatics is tobacco smoke. Exposure to tobacco smoke causes irritation and inflammation of airways, especially in persons with asthma. Studies show that even exposures to secondhand smoke can double the chance of asthma-related hospital visits.

Exposure to secondhand smoke is a particular concern for young children and infants. Infants born to parents who smoke have increased airway responsiveness and irritation. Likewise, mothers who smoke are more likely to have babies at a low-birth weight and incomplete lung development, all of which increases the infant's risk of developing asthma.

To limit these adverse effects, asthmatics should take precautions to avoid exposure to tobacco smoke. Parents and expectant parents who smoke are strongly encouraged to quit, for their own health and their child's health.

Food Sensitivities

The food preservative sulfite, the flavor enhancer MSG, and yellow and red food colorings, have been known to trigger asthma attacks. Strictly speaking, sensitivity to additives is not an allergy, but they can trigger an asthma attack. If you are sensitive to any of these additives, read food labels and avoid foods that contain the offending additives.

Because sulfites have caused the most problems, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of sulfating agents on salad greens, peeled fruits, fresh potatoes and guacamole. The FDA also requires warning labels on all foods and wines containing substantial sulfite levels.


Regular, moderate exercise provides a variety of benefits for asthmatics, including improving lung function. However, intense exercise with rapid breathing, particularly in cool, dry environments, can trigger exercised-induced asthma. For the asthmatic, the airways overreact to the cool and dry air.

Using a scarf over the nose and mouth can help warm the air before in reaches the lungs, and helps prevent asthma symptoms. Thorough warm-up periods before vigorous exercise can help reduce the airway narrowing and wheezing. Indoor activities, especially swimming (where the air is warm and moist), are the best choices during the winter or when the pollen counts or pollution is high.

Cold Air or Sudden Changes in Temperature or Weather

Abrupt changes in the air temperature, such as going from a warm house to the cold outdoors, can cause asthma attacks. Protecting the airways from cold and dry air by covering your mouth and nose with a scarf can help. And always try to dress properly, keeping your body warm.

Medication Sensitivity

About 10 percent of all asthma patients are sensitive to aspirin and other anti-inflammatory pain medications such as ibuprofen. People sensitive to these drugs may develop severe, hard-to-control attacks when they take any aspirin or aspirin-like pain reliever.

Similarly, beta-blockers (beta adrenergic antagonists) commonly used to treat migraine headaches, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and some other conditions can also aggravate asthma symptoms in some people. Alert your pharmacist and health care providers about your asthma before starting any medication. Usually alternative medications, that are safe for asthmatics, can be used.


Asthmatics, particularly children, seem to have more symptoms during period of heavy air pollution. There is still much to be learned about the ill-effects of air pollution. However, ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which come from automobile exhaust and certain manufacturing wastes, seem to be the biggest culprits for asthma sufferers. During periods of high pollution, asthmatics should avoid any outdoor exertion, especially in mid-afternoon when ozone levels peak. Limit outdoor activities to the early morning or late evening when ozone levels are lowest.

Occupational Triggers

Work environments are generally safe for most people. However, there are substances in certain work environments that may present problems for people with asthma. If your asthma or allergy symptoms seem to be worse while at work, something in the environment may be the problem. The list below identifies some of the most common irritants.

Consult with your healthcare provider to determine the best way to manage your workplace asthma. Often symptoms can be minimized by avoiding the areas at work where the offending triggers are located. In a few cases, asthma and allergy symptoms may be so severe that seeking a change in occupation is the best solution.

Common Occupational Asthma Triggers

Animal Dander
Farmers, veterinarians, groomers and laboratory workers most often affected.
Including formalin, hexachlorophene, ethylene diamine and metabisulfite. These most commonly affect hospital workers, photographers, and food service workers.
Crabs and shrimp can affect food service workers and those working in seafood packing plants.
Including nickel, chromium, platinum, cobalt, and vanadium.
Dust from flours, grains and wood can affect mill workers, carpenters, bakers and lumberjacks.
Plastics and rubber
Such as polyurethane plastics, paints, varnish and latex or rubber products.


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