When we think of asthma triggers, some main offenders typically come to mind: physical activity, allergies, cold weather, or an upper respiratory infection. The reality is that all kinds of things — even some you might never suspect — can exacerbate asthma symptoms.
“There is a unique laundry list of triggers,” Dr. Jonathan Parsons at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center told me, adding that it can be hard to research all potential asthma triggers.
For those of us living with asthma, knowing what triggers your symptoms (and how to manage them) is super important — but learning to identify those things is an ongoing process, and what you learn might surprise you! Check out some of the stranger triggers I found along my journey.
Yep, you read that right. These cute little insects may also be powerful allergens for those of us with asthma. In a 2006 study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, residents of Kentucky reported a significant increase in allergy symptoms that correlated with seasonal ladybug infestations, specifically the species Harmonia axyridis.
Some experts believe that this uptick in allergy symptoms could be triggered by dust that accumulates as the ladybugs die and decompose.
It’s well-known that certain food preservatives and additives are no-nos for people with asthma. For example, sulfites, such as those in wine and on food, monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, dyes, and other additives can also cause asthma attacks.
Dr. Parsons noted that in the case of certain cheeses, mold may be the underlying culprit. Mold can be a common trigger, but Catherine Lux experiences an incredible reaction.
“I was at dinner with friends and they ordered the cheese board — it was a huge trolley covered in blue cheeses, and I started wheezing on the way home.” After speaking with her doctor, they ramped up her medications at times when she knows she’ll be around these triggers.
Laughter and crying
According to Hollis Heavenrich-Jones with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), asthma attacks can be triggered by a variety of things. Strong emotions like crying and laughter can exacerbate symptoms a lead to an attack. I’ve always struggled with more symptoms after laughing, but had never put two and two together until recently.
I spoke with Dr. Luz Claudio, a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine who teaches about preventative and environmental health. In her work, Claudio, has found some evidence of air conditioning triggering asthma symptoms. This is especially true, she said, when moving from an overly warm outdoor environment to an air-conditioned space.
This explains a lot for me personally. My asthma has perpetually gotten worse since moving to the Midwest — while the frigid winters pose their own risks, I find that I struggle during the summer months as well. I experience humidity-related pain from another health condition, and so the air conditioning is almost constantly running in my house during the summer months.
Dr. Parsons said that A/C-related asthma flares could be due to a number of factors. Drastic temperature drops can be “irritable to airways,” he said (this is part of why being in winter weather can be dangerous for people with asthma), and added that window units can pose additional risks from mold and excess dust. So whether you have central air or a portable unit, make sure you’re replacing the air filters on a regular schedule!
Whenever it rains, I know that the next day will be easier on my allergies — which also means an easier day for my asthma symptoms.
Thunderstorms are the exception to the rule.
Instead of calming down pollen counts, big storms tend to spread it by causing them to explode, sending higher concentrations of pollen particles into the atmosphere. “The rapid up-and-down drafts of air [during a thunderstorm] split pollen, and it populates in the air,” Dr. Parsons further explained. This leads to a temporary increase in pollen levels, which can be extremely dangerous for people with asthma.
Typically, pollen is filtered through the nose before it enters the respiratory tracts, but when it’s broken up, those microscopic particles are small enough to enter the lungs. This weather-related phenomenon got a lot of attention in 2016 when a massive storm system caused eight asthma-related deaths and sent over 8,000 people to emergency rooms in Australia.
I have always struggled with determining food-related triggers for my asthma, but on the whole I tend to be pretty mindful. There are foods I avoid or limit due to sensitivities, and I even take note of certain brands that make my symptoms worse. Right now, that includes soda and dairy, but recently I’ve added spicy foods to that list.
This makes trips to my favorite taco spot a little less fun.
According to Dr. Parsons, my spice-induced asthma flares are most likely due to acid reflux. The spicy foods create excessive stomach acid, which in turn irritates the lungs and airways. The AAAAI states that prolonged acid reflux may even worsen your asthma over time.
Matt Herron lives with exercise-induced asthma, but he’s been able to stay active by tweaking his treatment regimen with his doctor. With his doctor’s advice, he runs several times a week and has been able to keep his symptoms under control during exercise.
But Herron also has a sweet tooth, and recently discovered that his favorite pre-run treat may be triggering his symptoms. “For whatever reason, whenever I eat a bunch of sugar before a run, it causes my asthma to flare up regardless of the use of [my medication]. It seems to happen like clockwork.”
While Herron says he’s more conscious of his sugar intake now, the relationship between sweets and his symptom flares remains a mystery. I reached out to Dr. Parsons to get his input, and his best guess was that it could be an unknown allergy.
It’s not your imagination! Many health issues — including asthma — tend to get worse during the menstrual cycle, when your levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease. In fact, girls are often first diagnosed with asthma around the time that they begin puberty. However, the relationship between these female sex hormones and asthma symptoms is still a bit murky.
“How it works hasn’t been played out yet,” Dr. Parsons said.
Controlling your asthma triggers
Knowing what to limit or avoid is the first step in controlling your triggers. Keep a running list of things that seem to make your symptoms flare — and don’t skimp on the details! If you can, try to record how long it took for your asthma to act up, how severe the flare was, and any other information that might be useful.
Talk to your doctor about your triggers — they can help determine if you have an underlying allergy and also suggest strategies for managing symptom flares due to trigger exposure.
Try to avoid or limit your exposure to things you believe are triggers. This may mean avoiding the cleaning aisle at the store, reading food labels more closely, or changing your activities based on the weather.
The most important thing? Make sure to use your medications appropriately, and to carry them with you at all times. We never know when a new or unexpected trigger might show up — it’s not worth sacrificing safety to avoid the potential inconvenience of carrying your medication on you.
Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. She recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex! You can learn more about Kirsten and Chronic Sex at chronicsex.org and follow her on Twitter.
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