Identifying Unusual Allergic Asthma Triggers

by Kathi MacNaughton Health Professional

The foundation to controlling allergic asthma is to identify the things that you are sensitive to, known as triggers, and then doing your best to eliminate them from your environment.

Common Allergic Asthma Triggers

Most anyone who has had asthma for a while knows that the most common allergic asthma triggers are:

  • Tree, grass and weed pollen

  • Animal dander, saliva and urine

  • Dust mites

  • Mold spores, both those found indoors and outdoors

  • Insect droppings

Any of these substances can set off an allergic reaction that results in asthma symptoms, if you happen to be sensitive to them. I'm not sure about insect droppings, but all the others get me every time

Other Common Airway Irritants

Asthma, both the allergic type and the non-allergic kind, can also flare-up if you are exposed to certain irritants in the environment. Some of these are well-known, while others may not be.

Here are a few examples of the ones most people know about:

  • Tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke

  • Wood fire smoke, from a wood stove or a campfire

  • Strong perfume or perfumed hairspray

Less Well-Known, or Unusual, Asthma Triggers

But, unfortunately, when you have asthma, there are many other risky substances commonly found in our environment that could be just lurking and waiting to set off your asthma.

So, next time you have an asthma attack, consider whether you might have come into contact with one of these "sneakier" triggers:

  • Air fresheners, including sprays, plug-in devices and those paper trees you hang from your rearview mirror in the car. They're really nothing more than perfume that is masking the source of an original odor, and very irritating to those sensitive to scents.

  • Paint, which often contains something known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have been proven to be very airway irritating.

  • Certain spices, including popular cinnamon and garlic. Not everyone is sensitive to spices, but many people are, especially the "hotter" spices. Be aware too, that some spices, such as cumin seed, can emit a rather caustic essence when toasted. I once inhaled the yummy aroma of toasting cumin seeds and went into a severe asthma attack that left my airways irritated for days!

  • Wine, which contains substances called sulfites, that some people are extremely sensitive to.

  • Miscellaneous VOCs found in carpet, new flooring, construction dust and even new cars!

  • Cold air, which can quickly trigger an asthma attack in some people. Try wrapping a scarf across your mouth and breathing through that. It's often enough to warm the air before it enters your airways.

  • Scented candles and incense; like air fresheners, these can contain strong perfumes that you may be sensitive to.

In Summary

Depending on your sensitivities, there may be other things in your environment to which you'll react negatively. Keeping a symptom diary can be helpful in identifying what is triggering your asthma flare-ups, so that you can then take steps to eliminate those things from your environment.

You can also look for "green" alternatives to paint and other items, or unscented varieties of candles, etc. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has a website that lists safer alternatives at

Kathi  MacNaughton
Meet Our Writer
Kathi MacNaughton

Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she's been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.