Everything You Need To Know About Asthma, From Triggers To Treatments

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 13 Americans has asthma. Every day, ten people die from asthma-related complications. Despite the condition being so common, many people do not understand it or know how to handle it.

Did you know that asthma is not considered to be a single disease? Or that exercise can both harm and help asthma? If you or someone you know has asthma, learn everything about the condition here–from triggers to at-home treatments.

What Is Asthma?

A man coughs while holding a tissue.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

While many people are familiar with asthmatic symptoms, some do not know what the condition is. The American Lung Association defines asthma as a chronic condition in which the airways become inflamed and produce more mucous. This may cause breathing problems in some people.

Asthma can be diagnosed at any age, and it has no cure. The inflammation makes airways sensitive to “triggers” such as dust or pollen. Sometimes, the muscles around the airways tighten, which results in a flare-up or “asthma attack.”

Asthma Is Not A Single Disease

A teenager coughs while a doctor measures her breathing through a stethoscope.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

The American Lung Association claims that asthma is no longer considered a disease. Instead, asthma is a condition that is divided into different categories based on the triggers. Examples include nocturnal asthma, exercise-induced asthma, allergic asthma, and Aspirin-induced asthma.

Researchers also define the type of asthma based on how inflammation occurs. There is Eosinophilic asthma, which is when a type of white blood cell attacks triggers. Then there’s Neutrophilic asthma, when a different kind of white blood cell obstructs airflow. Patients can have both or neither.

The Most Common Asthma Triggers

Pollen flies off of a plant.

According to the CDC, the most common asthma triggers are dust mites, mold, and pollen. Pets with shaggy fur can also cause symptoms, as well as pests such as cockroaches and mice. Outdoor air pollution, such as from wildfires, could also trigger asthma.

People with asthma are especially susceptible to secondhand smoke, and tobacco smoke can prompt an asthma attack. Many of these triggers can be removed from the home through persistent cleaning and healthy habits.

The Causes Are Not Yet Known

A drawing shows how airways constrict during an asthma attack.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Scientists do not know what causes people to develop asthma. Many researchers believe that it has a genetic component and that parents with asthma are more likely to have a child with it. However, this requires more research.

Another theory, according to The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), is that environmental factors can cause asthma. The immune system detects triggers (such as pollen and dust) as threats and overreacts to them. Yet researchers don’t know why peoples’ immune systems react to dust more than others’.

Children With Asthma Have More Risks

A young girl uses an asthma inhaler.
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Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), one in 12 children has asthma. Over 47% of children have at least one asthma attack per year. Unfortunately, children with asthma have a higher risk of growth delay, learning disabilities, and food allergies.

The AAAAI says that asthma is the most common chronic condition in children. Babies with a low birth rate have a higher risk of developing the condition, as do kids with a family history of allergies.

Women Have A Higher Asthma Rate–Thank Hormones

A woman uses an inhaler.
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BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Women are more likely to get–and die from–asthma than men. While only 5.4% of adult men have asthma, 9.8% of women have it. In 2017, a study by Cell Press explained that hormones are to blame.

Researchers found that ovarian hormones are more likely to increase inflammation in the lungs, while testosterone is more likely to ease inflammation. The result is that women are twice as likely to develop asthma than men. In kids, however, boys are more likely to have asthma than girls.

Why Asthma Can Be Seasonal

A woman blows her nose while outside near plants.
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Not all cases of asthma are chronic. Seasonal asthma occurs when symptoms only appear during certain seasons. It is a type of allergic asthma, meaning that it is triggered by allergens such as pollen and dust.

Asthma attacks frequently occur during autumn. Researchers believe that seasonal allergies are to blame, as well as schools beginning in fall. Studies show that seasonal asthma attacks are linked to specific triggers. For instance, people who are sensitive to grass tend to get more symptoms during spring and summer.

How Exercise Triggers Asthma

A woman rests after exercise by placing her hands on her knees.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Some people with asthma may have a difficult time exercising. One type of asthma is even caused by physical activity; it is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). With EIB, symptoms appear after several minutes of exercise.

The AAAAI says that some people with EIB do not otherwise have asthma, while others do. Symptoms include a tight chest, wheezing, coughing, and trouble breathing after exercise. Dry and cold air could worsen symptoms.

…But Exercise Can Also Help Asthma

A man jogs in Australia.
WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images
WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

While exercise can trigger symptoms in some patients, it can also improve asthma. According to the Lung Association, physical activity can strengthen breathing muscles and help the lungs absorb more oxygen. It can also strengthen the immune system and make the body less sensitive to triggers.

To exercise with asthma, develop warm-up and cool-down routines. These will prevent you from exercising too hard and becoming breathless. Know your triggers; if cold air makes you worse, perhaps walk instead of jog.

How Weather Worsens Asthma

A woman's breath appears in the cold air.
STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Believe it or not, a weather shift can trigger asthma symptoms. According to Asthma UK, a sudden change in weather can cause airways to narrow. For example, a thunderstorm creates humidity, which can make peoples’ chest feel tighter.

Sudden bouts of hot and cold weather can irritate peoples’ airways. Icy air can cause airways to spasm, leading to wheezing and coughing. Hot, dry air spreads pollen and dust, which can trigger asthma. Weather triggers vary between patients.

Asthma And Sleep–It’s Not A Good Combination

A woman sleeps in a bed.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Since asthma can result in difficulty breathing, many patients have trouble sleeping, too. Nocturnal asthma could wake people up with coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness. According to the National Sleep Foundation, scientists believe that symptoms appear during our natural sleep cycle (circadian rhythm).

Symptoms can worsen at night because air resistance increases when a person sleeps. Other causes could be a sleeping position, increased mucus, cold air, a delayed allergen response, or stress. If left untreated, nocturnal asthma could lead to worse diseases later in life.

How Doctors Diagnose Asthma

A doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to her patient's breathing.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Asthma is not easy to diagnose. Oftentimes, doctors will look into a patient’s family history for signs of asthma, allergies, or respiratory illnesses. Allergy tests can also provide some clues. Experts will take samples from the blood or skin and see how they react to asthmatic triggers.

Doctors may also test lung function with spirometry. During the test, doctors use a device called a spirometer to detect how quickly air goes in and out of the lungs. These are the quickest methods of diagnosis.

No Cures, But Treatments

An asthma patient inhales his medication through a tube.
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Avijit Ghosh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

There is no cure for asthma. However, patients can take treatments to ease their symptoms. The ACAAI says that there are two types of asthma medication: short-term relief and long-term treatment. Doctors can prescribe a combination of these drugs to treat patients on a case-by-case basis.

Another form of treatment is immunotherapy. This therapy exposes patients to small amounts of triggers over time, lowering the immune system’s response to them. For instance, if allergies cause asthma, the patient may receive allergy shots.

Trying Medicine Through A Lung Function Test

A woman displays her box of high blood pressure and asthma medications.
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Another method of diagnosis is called a lung function test. Doctors may assign anti-asthma medications to patients for four to six weeks. If the patient responds positively to these medications, then they likely have asthma.

Lung function tests are difficult to do with children, says the American Lung Association. Kids have a hard time sticking to daily medications, and some need a quicker diagnosis. Not every patient needs a lung function test; usually, a family history and allergen check will suffice.

How Inhalers Work

A person sprays an inhaler.
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Getty Images

You may have seen people with asthma use an inhaler. Inhalers work by spraying medicine straight into the lungs. The medication relaxes the airways, opening them more and allowing for immediate relief. According to Asthma UK, anyone diagnosed with asthma can receive an inhaler, even children under age five.

Asthma & Allergy Associates explains that there are two kinds of inhalers. The most common type is a metered-dose inhaler, which mixes medicine with aerosol to spray it into the lungs. The second type is a dry powder inhaler, where medicine is distributed through a capsule.

Asthma Can Permanently Change Airways

Models demonstrate the difference between asthma airways (left) and regular airways (right).
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Over time, asthma can permanently change the body’s airways. Research in Clinical Science found that asthma can thicken airways, smooth muscle walls, increase blood flow to the lungs, and create more mucus.

Chronic inflammation forces cells to rearrange in the airways. According to the University of Iowa, these changes do not damage the lungs. However, they can lead to harsher breathing and coughing. During an asthma attack, this could result in a life-threatening emergency. Chronic asthma should be monitored to prevent this.

Asthma-Proof Your Home

A woman dusts with a brush.
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The best way to avoid asthma symptoms is to identify your triggers and avoid them. If your biggest trigger is dust, vacuum your carpets frequently. If it’s mold, wash your dishes immediately after using them. Take steps to asthma-proof your home.

The Rhode Island Department of Health offers some tips. Clean up food immediately after eating to avoid pests. Wash your bedsheets and dust furniture every week. Keep the air circulating with air conditioners, fans, or open windows.

Prevent Symptoms By De-Cluttering

A table is covered in clutter.

Even if you dust frequently, your allergies will remain bad if you don’t declutter. Allergy and asthma specialist Uma Gavani says that dust mites, mold, and pet dander hide in cluttered places. When you have more stuff lying around, you’ll have more allergy triggers.

On top of that, pulmonologist Raymond Casciari says that “you can’t clean clutter well.” Even if you dust, you may not be able to clean everything thoroughly. If you have asthma, always declutter before you clean.

Buy A Dehumidifier For Your Bedroom

A person walks past a dehumidifier in his basement.
Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Dust mites, mold, and mildew thrive in homes with humidity above 50%. To assuage allergy systems, keep your home between 30% and 50% humidity, says the AAAAI. The best method is to buy a dehumidifier. Placing one in your room can even help you sleep better.

If your room feels stuffy or smells musty, it is probably too humid. Pulmonologist Ryan Thomas says that a dehumidifier can lower the humidity and reduce the spread of dust. A small, portable one costs less than $200.

Is Your Bed Making Asthma Worse?

A sick woman blows her nose in bed.
Anke Thomass/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Anke Thomass/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Those who have nighttime asthma may want to double-check their sheets. Certain bedsheets, pillows, and mattresses can soak up dust. Certified Asthma & Allergy Friendly says that asthmatics should buy sheets that block dust, are easily cleaned, and contain no allergy-inducing chemicals.

Unfortunately, two studies in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that anti-asthma sheets do little to alleviate symptoms. That said, allergist Clifford W. Bassett still recommends them–along with other anti-asthma changes, such as washing the sheets weekly.

Keep Your Home Dry

Mold appears on a bedroom wall.
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Fungi, such as mold, can impact the air we breathe. The American Lung Association recommends that people keep their homes as “dry” as possible to reduce mold. Ensuring proper ventilation through fans, air conditioners, or dehumidifiers is a great start.

Try to keep your kitchen and restroom as dry as possible. Consistently wet areas, such as showers and sinks, are the most likely to grow mold. If you find mold, combine one cup of bleach with a gallon of water and use the solution to clean it.

Set Boundaries With Pets

A young boy sleeps with his pet puppy.
Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images
Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

If you cough, sneeze, or have itchy eyes after interacting with a pet, then that pet’s fur is likely a trigger. Many people with asthma choose to keep pets. If that sounds like you, establish boundaries to lower your symptoms, says Asthma UK.

Wash pets twice a month; that will lower the number of dust mites and dirt that they carry around. Do not allow pets in your bedroom while you’re sleeping. This could aggravate your symptoms at night and disturb sleep.

Hand-Wash Dishes Instead Of Using The Dishwasher

A woman hand-washes dishes.
Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Believe it or not, dishwashers can worsen asthma symptoms. In 2015, a study in the journal Pediatrics found that children had worse eczema and asthma in households that use dishwashers. When participants hand-washed dishes, children had fewer asthma symptoms.

“We, therefore, speculate that hand dishwashing is associated with increased microbial exposure, causing immune stimulation and, hence, less allergy,” said lead author Dr. Bill Hesselmar. In the study, only 12% of families hand-washed their dishes, but it benefitted their children.

Cook With Anti-Inflammatory Spices

Garlic cloves are peeled and set on a table.
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

There is some evidence that anti-inflammatory herbs and spices can ease asthma. These spices lower inflammation in the airways, which can help people breathe easier. According to a 2014 study, participants who took turmeric supplements had less airway obstruction. An animal study in The BMC found that rats with asthma had fewer symptoms after eating ginseng and garlic.

Only a few small studies have connected asthma with spices. However, these spices can improve your cooking and provide many nutrients that could aid asthma.

Stress Worsens Asthma

A man pulls at his hair in frustration.
JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images
JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

Intense emotions, such as stress, can prompt asthma symptoms. If stress is chronic, then asthma can also be persistently worse. A study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that stress creates inflammation, affecting asthma.

On top of that, symptoms of stress can correspond with asthma symptoms. Breathlessness and tightness of the chest also occur from intense stress, which can make it difficult to distinguish between stress and asthma. By managing stress, patients will also lower asthma.

When You Should Talk To A Doctor Or Call 911

An ambulance rushes through the streets.
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Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images

Even manageable asthma can sometimes get out of control. The American Lung Association advises patients to see a doctor if their symptoms become intense. These include wheezing breaths, feeling faint, and struggling to do mundane activities such as chores.

In some instances, asthma patients may need to call an emergency hotline. If talking or walking becomes difficult, or if you’re breathing over 30 times per minute, call 911. Also, contact emergency services for anyone who is turning blue.

The Myth Of Dairy And Asthma

A young boy drinks milk.
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

A common health myth says that eating dairy could cause asthma. The National Asthma Council of Australia says that this is a myth; no food group can give people asthma. While this is not true, some people with asthma may have worse symptoms after eating dairy.

Researchers have pointed out that asthma patients are more prone to food allergies. They likely have a higher sensitivity to dairy than non-asthmatic people. That said, dairy sensitivity varies among patients.

Obesity Is A Huge Risk Factor

Measuring tape sits on a scale.

Obese people have a greater chance of getting asthma, and their symptoms are often worse. According to the CDC, 38.8% of Americans with asthma are also obese. The correlation between weight and asthma seems especially true for women, although researchers don’t yet know why.

Scientists from the American Lung Association discovered that patients with a high BMI do not respond to medications as well as patients with a low BMI. Obese people tend to have a harder time managing their symptoms.

Certain Groups Have A Greater Risk Of Asthma

Boy using inhaler
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Specific ethnic groups are more likely to get asthma than others. Research from the AAFA found that African-Americans have the highest rate of asthma. They are three times more likely to have an asthma-related death than any other race or ethnic group. Puerto Ricans are the second most likely group.

However, asthma rates also depend on financial status. People in low-income areas with harmful air pollution are more likely to get asthma.

Asthma Patients Commonly Have Acid Reflux

A man suffers from heartburn.
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

In 2000, a study found that 60% of asthma patients have signs of acid reflux. Asthma tends to harm the gastrointestinal tract with excess mucus, says the Journal of Asthma and Allergy. When asthma prompts acid reflux, acid reflux then worsens asthma, and the cycle continues.

When acid seeps up from the stomach, it can bother airways and trigger asthma symptoms. Gastrointestinal researcher Philip Schoenfeld says that many asthma patients have “silent” acid reflux. This reflux may not cause noticeable symptoms such as heartburn, but it still worsens asthma.