10 Odd Things That Can Trigger Your Asthma

written by Kristy Alpert - Feb 27, 2017

Photo Credit: by The Asthma Society of Canada
Photo Credit: by The Asthma Society of Canada

Chances are you’ve already done it at least once while reading this sentence. Breathing is the single most important thing we do as humans—where the average adult takes anywhere from 12 to 20 breathes per minute and up to 17,000 to 30,000 breathes throughout the day—and, unless you’re one of the 3 million Canadians affected by asthma, it’s something most of us take for granted.

Asthma is a chronic condition where the airways become inflamed and swollen while producing excess mucus. This process greatly restricts the airflow, and often results in breathing difficulties, coughing, and shortness of breath … a.k.a an asthma attack. While some asthma attacks may only occur for a few brief minutes, more severe attacks have been known to last days or weeks if not treated promptly and in some cases can prove fatal.

According to the a 2014 study by the Government of Canada, approximately 8.1 percent of Canadians aged 12 and older, roughly 2.4 million people, and 13 percent of Canadian children aged 0 to 11 (roughly 600,000 children) have been diagnosed with asthma. Unfortunately, the rates of asthma diagnoses are only increasing in Westernized countries, where the prevalence of asthma increased by 70.5 percent between the years 1996 and 2005.

Every day, 317 people are diagnosed with asthma in Canada, a startling statistic that translates to 115,832 new asthma cases each year according to Dr. Teresa To, director of OASIS, Sick Kids. Dr. To also found that nearly 290 people suffering from a severe asthma attack wind up in Canadian emergency rooms every day (adding up to 105,927 visits each year for asthma alone!), placing an annual economic burden of asthma across Canada at $52 billion.

Unfortunately asthma is a condition that cannot be cured; however, the symptoms can be controlled as nearly 60 percent of patients with asthma have allergic asthma, a condition in which asthma attacks are triggered by exposure to certain allergens. “Learning what your asthma triggers are, taking steps to avoid them where possible, carrying your medication with you, and following an asthma action plan are important steps to living well with asthma,” said Vanessa Foran, President and CEO of the Asthma Society of Canada.

Some of the better known triggers of asthma include second hand smoke, mold, and pet dander, but did you know that certain preservatives, traffic, and even some insects can trigger an attack? While you should always speak with your doctor to identify your own personal asthma triggers, here are 10 of the most unusual triggers to avoid if you suffer from asthma.

1. Cockroaches

As if you needed more reason to dislike these little bugs, cockroaches actually contain a protein in their saliva, waste, and body parts that can trigger allergic reactions. The protein is similar to dust mites in the way they are carried through the air. In fact, the National Pest Management Association reported that nearly 63 percent of homes contain cockroach allergens, that number rising between 78 and 98 percent in urban environments. The best way to remove these allergens is to vacuum or mop areas that may attract cockroaches at least every two to three days (i.e., anywhere food or crumbs may land). Roach traps can help eliminate the problem as well, but keeping floors clean is the safest bet toward creating a healthy (and cockroach free!) home environment.

2. Ladybugs

Although they may seem harmless enough, a recent study found that out of 1,400 skin tests, 21 percent of patients showed some form of an allergy to these little bugs. The most asthma inducing species of ladybug is the Asian ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis) that release an orange fluid as a defense mechanism. When the proteins from this fluid become airborne, it often results in an asthma attack for those sensitive to the bug. To prevent an attack, ensure windows and doors are sealed properly and always remove and cleanup behind dead insects as soon as they appear.

3. Hypoallergenic pets

Most people with asthma know to steer clear of dogs, cats, and other pets that shed, as the fallen fur from these creatures is often linked to asthma attacks. However, even so-called hypoallergenic pets (i.e., pets with no fur) can trigger an attack, as fur and hair isn’t the only allergen attached to these animals. Harmless proteins in the pet’s urine, saliva, and dead skill cells (i.e., dander) can cause the same reaction for asthmatics. Bathe pets weekly and let them outdoors as often as possible so you can vacuum and mop up the surfaces in your home thoroughly.

4. The common cold and the flu

The common cold (and other rhinoviruses) and the flu are some of the most common instigators of asthma attacks. The worse part is that oftentimes asthma medications prove ineffective fail for relieving asthma symptoms associated with a cold or the flu, and can leave asthmatics with symptoms for up to a few weeks and in rare cases can even prove fatal. Many specialists recommend taking Relenza to help prevent the flu, but asthmatics should always practice good hand-washing habits … especially during cold and flu season.

5. Preservatives

Oftentimes food allergies are to blame for an onset of asthma symptoms, but even certain ingredients and preservatives can be the triggers for an unwelcomed attack. Sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, and sodium sulfite are all major culprits when it comes to the foods that elicit an attack, but other food colorings (specifically yellow food coloring due to its high levels of tartrazine) and flavoring agents as well as nitrites and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are well-known as bringing on asthma symptoms in people with sensitivities. The best way to avoid a potential attack in this case is to read food labels and try to only eat foods with ingredients in which you are familiar.

6. Obesity

Scientific evidence has long suggested that obesity and asthma are connected through a physiological chronic inflammatory response. Doctors suspect that one of the main reasons obesity triggers asthma attacks is due to under-expanded lungs in obese people. The smaller passageways mean obese people take smaller breaths, causing their airways to narrow in size and making them prone to irritation. A recent study by the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that obese adults with asthma are almost five times more likely than non-obese asthmatics to be hospitalized due to asthma. Fortunately, research shows that losing weight and lowering cholesterol may alleviate many of the asthma symptoms.

7. Hormones

Many studies have found that asthma symptoms worsen at certain points of a women’s cycle, leading many specialists to agree that varying hormone levels directly impact the severity of asthma symptoms. A recent study published in the European Respiratory Journal found that menopausal women with asthma had a 95 percent higher risk of symptoms, while a paper published by the Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society found that after menopause, when hormone levels have fallen and stabilized, asthma incidences decline in women. Even the monthly hormonal changes women experience can impact asthma, with nearly 25-40 percent of female asthmatics noting pre-menstrual associated asthma symptoms.

8. Air pollution

No one enjoys sitting in traffic, but for asthmatics, the simple act of breathing in those car emissions could mean an unexpected asthma attack. Not only does air pollution from vehicles increase the risk of asthma, but it also increases the severity of the symptoms. Traffic pollution increases asthma by eight percent according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The best bet is to avoid purchasing a home nearby busy roadways or avoid putting children in schools within 250 feet of a busy street, but if you already live near a busy road, the best defense is to help offset the pollution by planting trees or placing live plants in the home since the foliage can help filter the air and absorb pollutants.

9. Stress

According to a 2015 article published in the Journal of Asthma, asthma symptoms are directly correlated to experiencing psychological distress. Unfortunately, stress and asthma are connected as a vicious cycle. Even a mild asthma attack can cause anxiety or panic, which in turns makes your asthma worse. In already stressed individuals, the gush of emotions can trigger asthma, where the breath becomes shallower and breathing becomes harder and faster due to crying (which also increases mucus production) or increased levels of anxiety. Stress can also weaken the immune system, opening up the body to infections or other complications during an asthma attack. Learning to manage stress naturally and medically will go a long way in relieving these triggers.

10. Household plastics

The synthetic compound Bisphenol A (BPA) has long been linked with asthma, where a study by the Pediatric Academic Societies recently concluded that a mother’s BPA exposure during the first trimester of pregnancy relates to a higher risk of the child developing asthma early in life. BPA is mainly found in plastic bottles and other food containers, but a new study revealed that another chemical found in household plastics could be to blame for asthma triggers. Phthalates have been found to increase the likelihood of children developing asthma by 70 percent, and have been rumored as a likely trigger for asthma. Avoid these plastics by steering clear of any scented plastics or beauty products (scented trash bags, vinyl flooring, perfumed moisturizers, scented hair spray, etc.)

There are a number of asthma medications that can provide quick relief, such as Albuterol, Proair HFA, and Ventolin, and long-term control options include products like Symbicort. If you’re ready to get your asthma under control, talk to your doctor to see which of the many asthma medications are right for you.

For more info about the Asthma Society of Canada, the only national, patient-driven charity, solely devoted to enhancing the quality of life for people living with asthma and respiratory allergies, visit www.asthma.ca, or call the free Asthma & Allergy HelpLine to get connected to a Certified Respiratory Educators to answer your asthma and allergy healthcare needs at 1-866-787-4050 or info@asthma.ca.


Kristy Alpert is a freelance writer and editor with extensive experience covering travel, food, and lifestyle topics. She has written for a variety of publications and clients including Canadian Pharmacy World.


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While the above article is based on thorough research, we do not claim to offer a substitute for medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider. The article was written for information and educational purposes only. We aim to provide helpful information to our readers, but cannot provide a treatment, diagnosis, or consultation of any sort, and we are in no way indicating that any particular drug is safe or appropriate for you and your individual needs. To receive professional medical attention, you must see a doctor.