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Asthma Can Be Sneaky. What Are the Triggers?

Think about a dozen people you know — your friends and family. Now consider this: On average, one in 12 people — likely someone you know — has asthma. Maybe you’re the one who has asthma. Studies show it’s becoming more and more common.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that results in swelling of the airways. The swelling reduces the amount of air that can get to the lungs. Asthma causes repeated episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and nighttime or early morning coughing.


What Can Trigger Asthma?

With asthma, inflammation occurs when the bronchi — the airways that go into your lungs — come in contact with irritants or “triggers.” Triggers can include environmental or emotional factors such as:

  • Chemicals
  • Dust
  • Food additives
  • Strong odors
  • Pollution
  • Changes in air temperature
  • Pollen
  • Animal dander
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Stress or other strong emotions

Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware how they can properly avoid their triggers. Triggers will always cause airways to swell, mucus to build up and the muscles in the lungs and bronchial tubes to tighten. As the airway narrows and breathing difficulty increases, the individual can experience chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath. An acute episode is known as an asthma “attack.”


What Are the Signs of Asthma?

The most common symptoms of asthma are relatively painless. However, symptoms can progress to:

  • Increasing tightness or pressure in the chest
  • Mild to moderate shortness of breath
  • A wheezing or whistling sound ranging from faint to clearly audible while breathing
  • Coughing that may be accompanied by phlegm or mucus

Early warning signs of an asthma episode or attack include:

  • Frequent cough — especially at night
  • Losing your breath easily
  • Feeling tired or weak when exercising
  • Difficulty sleeping

Some people with asthma experience only mild and infrequent episodes. For them, the condition is an occasional inconvenience. For others, episodes can be frequent and possibly life threatening. Their episodes can require emergency medical treatment.


How Is Asthma Treated?

Asthma can be controlled by taking medicine and avoiding the triggers that can cause an attack.

If you have asthma, you can control your asthma and avoid attacks by taking your medications exactly as your health care provider instructs. Not everyone with asthma takes the same medicine. Some medicines can be inhaled, or breathed in. Some can be taken as a pill.

Asthma medicines come in two types—quick-relief and long-term control. Quick-relief medicines control the symptoms of an asthma attack. If you need to use your quick-relief medicines more often, you should visit with your health care provider to see if you need a different medicine.

Long-term control medicines help reduce the number and severity of attacks, but they don’t help if you’re having an asthma attack. Long-term control medicine should be taken even when you have no symptoms.


Who Is Affected by Asthma?

Asthma affects about 25 million Americans. The rates of asthma are increasing. Women are more likely to have asthma than men. It’s the leading chronic disease among children.


Is Asthma a Real Problem?

Asthma is a serious health and economic concern in the United States. In 2014, there were more than 2 million emergency department visits related to asthma. In 2016, 14.2 million doctor visits were prompted by asthma.

When you add up the medical costs and the lost work and school days, asthma’s toll is $56 billion dollars annually. That amounts to a bill of $174 for every American man, woman and child.

Asthma is responsible for about ten deaths every day — about 3, 600 people every year. Many deaths could be prevented with proper treatment and care.


What Can People Do to Reduce Risks?

If you suspect you or your child has asthma, see your health care provider. You can work with your provider to develop a plan to manage the asthma. The plan may include medication and/or lifestyles changes that can reduce the risk of an episode.

To reduce risks for asthma attacks:

  • Eat right
  • Get regular exercise and sleep
  • Avoid excessive stress
  • Identify and avoiding your triggers
  • Watch for warning signs
  • Follow appropriate treatment
  • Seek medical help immediately when needed


If you have questions about asthma, see your health care provider. If you don’t have a provider, you can find qualified primary care physicians and specialists online

Aurora Health Care is a not-for-profit health care provider.

Meet the Author

Marissa Strehlow, MS, LAT, is an athletic trainer at Aurora Sports Health in Mequon and is the athletic trainer for Nicolet High School.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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