What triggers asthma? 4 of the most common triggers and how to avoid them

An air filter can reduce the amount of pet dander in the air.
An air filter can reduce the amount of pet dander in the air.

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  • Some things that trigger asthma are tobacco smoke, mold, pets, and dust mites.

  • To avoid dust mites, you should keep the humidity in your home below 50%, wash your bedding in water that is 130º F or higher, and reduce the number of soft surfaces in your home where the mites may live.

  • If you’re allergic to dogs or cats, consider getting an air filter for your home which can get rid of some pet dander in the air. 

  • This article was medically reviewed by Osita Onugha, MD, thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

There are almost 25 million Americans living with asthma. Asthma is a condition that involves wheezing and extreme shortness of breath.  When you come into contact with something that triggers your asthma, it can lead to inflammation in your airways and potentially cause an asthma attack.

But not everyone’s asthma attacks are triggered by the same situations. The most effective way to ward off asthma symptoms is to know and avoid your triggers. 

Asthma is linked to allergies

Allergies and asthma are very closely tied, according to Geoffrey Chupp, MD, a pulmonologist and professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. He says the most common form of asthma is allergic asthma, which is asthma caused by exposures to allergens that the patient is allergic to. This accounts for about 60% of asthma cases.

“The allergic inflammatory response is activated when the allergen gets into the airway. Not all patients with allergies get asthma, but all patients with allergic asthma have allergies,” says Chupp.

That being said, an asthma patient doesn’t have to be allergic to something for it to trigger an asthma attack. According to Chupp, irritants like smoke, fumes, and perfumes can commonly trigger attacks in anyone with asthma. 

Here are four of the most common asthma triggers and how to avoid them.

The trigger: Tobacco smoke

Smoke from any burning substance is an irritant that can cause inflammation in the airways, Chupp says. This can lead to coughs and bronchospasm, which is when the airways that connect to your lungs contract and spasm, often causing wheezing and making it hard to breathe.

Secondhand tobacco smoke is one of the most ubiquitous examples of smoke irritants. It also contains over 7,000 chemicals which can further irritate your airways. 

How to avoid it

As much as possible, stay away from people who are smoking, and of course, do not smoke yourself. If it’s unavoidable to stay away from smokers, like if you live with family members who smoke, urge them to smoke outside of the house for your safety. 

Chupp also recommends washing all clothes that have been exposed to smoke. This should be done because of the presence of thirdhand smoke, which is chemicals left behind by tobacco smoke, even long after the smoke itself is gone.

Like secondhand smoke, thirdhand smoke can still trigger asthma. Not only can thirdhand smoke linger on clothes, but it can also be found on other soft surfaces in your home such as furniture, drapes, carpets, and bedding. All of these should be thoroughly cleaned regularly to reduce risk of inhaling these harmful particles. 

The trigger: Mold

Mold, or, more specifically, mold spores, are problematic for people with mold allergies and asthma. Mold spores are essentially tiny seeds that mold disperses in the air. They’re common, widespread, and cause allergic reactions in the airway when inhaled, says Chupp. But mold spores usually only trigger symptoms if you’re allergic to that specific type of mold. 

How to avoid it 

Chupp says mold can be difficult to avoid since spores are so widespread. However, he recommends steering clear of damp, humid areas that are likely to be moldy, such as basements. You should also take care of your home and clean it regularly to get rid of mold. 

The American Lung Association recommends having proper ventilation and keeping humidity levels in your home below 50% so mold is less likely to grow and spread. You can also use a humidity monitor to track humidity levels and add a dehumidifier to dry out any room that is especially humid.

Since the bathroom can be a breeding ground for mold, you should clean the bathroom with products that are meant specifically for killing mold, such as RMR-86 Instant Mold & Mildew Stain Remover or Skylarlife Home Mold & Mildew Remover. You can also check out Insider Reviews’ lie of top-rated bathroom cleaners for mold and grime. However,  use caution since cleaning products can cause asthma symptoms or an asthma attack. Make sure, when using cleaning products, to work in a well-ventilated area and use a mask or respirator to stop you from inhaling chemicals.

Additionally, the CDC says to check for water leaks, as these can be a culprit for causing mold to grow under your floors or behind your walls. That said, if you aren’t positive if it’s mold in your home causing your asthma attacks, call in a mold inspection specialist to see how much mold is actually in your home, says Sharon Anoush Chekijian, MD MPH, a doctor and associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Yale School of Medicine. 

The trigger: Dust mites

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, dust mites are one of the most common triggers for asthma and allergies. It’s actually the dust mites’ feces and their decaying bodies that contain the allergens. So yes — if you’re exposed to this irritant, it’s likely that you’ve got fecal particles in your airways, which can cause the reaction.

The mites themselves are extremely tiny and cannot be seen with the human eye. There are likely hundreds of thousands of dust mites in your home. They like to live in areas where human skin cells are shed, because this is what they feed on. 

Five spots where dust mites are likely to live in your home:

  1. Bedding 

  2. Pillows

  3. Carpets

  4. Upholstered furniture (such as couches and chairs)

  5. Drapes and curtains

How to avoid it 

Dust mites are pretty much everywhere, but they thrive in humid conditions and on soft surfaces. Therefore, similar to mold, you can try to reduce the amount of dust mites in your home by keeping your humidity level below 50%. To track humidity levels, you should keep a humidity monitor in your home.

Additionally, Chupp says it’s crucial to wash sheets, comforters, and pillow cases in hot water once a week to kill the dust mites. Wash the bedding in hot water, around 130º F to kill the mites and remove the allergens. Using hypoallergenic mattress and pillow covers can also help.

Furthermore, you can reduce the amount of soft surfaces in your home where dust mites might live, such as removing carpets, curtains, excess pillows, and stuffed animals. If you use area rugs, be sure to wash them regularly in hot water. Chekijian also says to change filters, like from AC units, and clean out air ducts like those in heaters. 

The trigger: Pets

Pets are a common trigger for allergies and asthma. However, contrary to popular belief, it’s the pets’ dander, urine, and saliva — not their fur — that causes the allergies and asthma attacks. 

Pet dander is especially pesky because the particles are tiny and lightweight, which means they can remain airborne for a longer period of time than other larger allergens like mold spores or pollen. 

How to avoid it

If you can’t part with your snuggle buddy, Chupp recommends keeping your pets off of your bed, or out of your bedroom altogether. He also says to use HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters, which can help trap irritant particles like pet hair and dander. Again, as with the other triggers, cleaning the house thoroughly and regularly can help reduce the number of irritants that are lying around. 

You should also talk to your doctor about any medications that may help you be comfortable and safe at home. Chekijian says you might need to use an antihistamine or your inhaler more regularly.

If you don’t have a pet but are looking to get one, search for a hypoallergenic animal. They won’t be completely free of allergens, but they can have significantly less. They’re bred to minimize allergens and triggers like dander, pet hair shedding, and secretion of surface oils. According to the American Kennel Club, pets with non-shedding coats will produce less dander, since dander is attached to pet hair. 

Lastly, if you’re going to someone’s home for the first time, Chekijian says you should ask if they have pets first so you can plan accordingly, perhaps by taking an antihistamine beforehand. 

Other asthma triggers

These are not the only triggers, but they are five of the most widespread ones.  Chekijian says some other asthma triggers are:

  • Smoke from campfires or indoor fireplaces

  • Vapor from an e-cigarette

  • Pollen

  • Fragrances

  • Changes in weather

  • Exercise

Be mindful of your symptoms and take note of what could be causing them. An allergist can run allergy tests to help you figure out what you are allergic to and what triggers your asthma, and then you can be better equipped to handle possible triggers. 

Speak to your doctor about when you should be taking antihistamines and using your inhaler. Above all, always have your inhaler handy in case of emergencies. 

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