What Causes Asthma Attacks?

Health Writer
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Asthma affects nearly 25 million Americans. It’s a chronic, inflammatory disease of the lungs and airways that makes it difficult to breathe at times. While there is no cure for asthma, it can help to avoid your triggers. An asthma trigger is something that causes your asthma to get worse. When you’re exposed to it, you can get an asthma attack, flare-up, or episode—a sudden worsening of your asthma symptoms.


Allergens: outdoor, indoor, food, and medicine

High pollen counts in spring and fall can cause asthma symptoms to flare. In contrast, dust mites and pet dander are allergens commonly found inside. Food and medicine can also cause asthma attacks. For instance, food allergies, aspirin, NSAIDs, and even herbal medicines can cause asthma attacks when people eat or take these items. Know your allergens and avoid them. Tell every healthcare provider your known food and drug allergens.


Sudden weather changes

For some people, dry wind, humidity, cold air, and/or sudden changes in weather can trigger their asthma symptoms (storms, strong winds, and sudden temperature changes for example). Days when ozone is high and the air quality is poor can also trigger symptoms. Check your air quality index. On sensitive or worse days, stay inside in air conditioning if possible.


Respiratory infections

Whether it’s a common cold, the flu, a sinus infection, or even acid reflux, it can make your asthma flare. Fun fact: even pregnancy can cause asthma symptoms to worsen temporarily due to hormone shifts. Infections are common causes of asthma attacks, so wash your hands often and well, get a flu shot unless contraindicated for you, and avoid going near people who are sick. Check with your physician to make sure any medical conditions like acid reflux are treated properly.


Strong odors

Some people with asthma find that certain scents in perfume, deodorant, candles, cleaning supplies, shampoo and conditioner, and other personal care items trigger their asthma. Use scent-free and fragrance-free products for yourself. If necessary, ask your doctor’s office to set up a fragrance-free zone for you or have you go directly into a scent-free exam room. Avoid heavily fragranced stores or areas.


Smoke and irritants

Not only can fragrances trigger asthma, so can cigarette smoke and other forms of smoke like charcoal grills and outdoor bonfires. Air pollution would fall into this category as well. Make a plan to quit smoking. Avoid secondhand tobacco smoke or find ways to limit your exposure if you live with a smoker. Avoid campfires, wood-burning fireplaces, and outdoor bonfires if they trigger your symptoms.



Your furry and feathery friends shed dander and saliva that can trigger your asthma to flare. Common allergenic pets are dogs, cats, hamsters, Guinea pigs, bunnies, mice, and ferrets. Make a plan with your doctor to manage your exposure. There are some hypoallergenic breeds. Vacuuming and damp dusting weekly can help manage exposure. Avoid having pets in your bedroom.


Stress, anxiety, or other strong emotions

Your emotions can directly affect your asthma. When we experience strong emotions, anxiety, and/or stress, our breathing patterns are affected. Crying and laughing both tax our breathing muscles and respiratory system. Any strong emotions can lead to asthma attacks, including anger, fear, and even joy. Stress and/or chronic anxiety can also worsen symptoms. Make sure to treat chronic stress and anxiety. Ensure you have an effective asthma plan for acute attacks.



There is a specific form of asthma called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). Exercise, particularly in cold air, is a common trigger for people with asthma. Even though exercise can trigger asthma attacks for some people, you shouldn’t avoid exercise if you have asthma. You should make sure you manage and treat your EIB properly. Make a plan with your doctor to prevent and manage your symptoms so you can enjoy exercising safely.



Cockroaches, mice, rats, and even dust mites could aggravate your asthma symptoms. You might find these pests at home, in your workplace, or your school. Get rid of the pests if at all possible. Use allergen-proof bedding covers. Vacuum and dust weekly. Store garbage outside. Wash bedding regularly.