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Home / Asthma / What are the Risk Factors of Asthma Attacks?

What are the Risk Factors of Asthma Attacks?

Asthma is a very common condition, estimated to affect approximately eight million people in the UK alone. For many asthma sufferers, it is a minor ailment that at the most will cause a slight increase in breathing after vigorous exercise. For others, it is a serious condition that can have severe and even life-threatening consequences if left unmanaged.

Asthma is the result of an overactive immune response. For those with a “healthy” immune system, they could stroll through a summer field or spend a day with their pet and have no change to their lung function. However, asthmatic individuals may be exposed to the same seemingly innocuous triggers only to experience the uncomfortable symptoms of an asthma attack, such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. This happens because the body perceives the irritant as a threat and responds with inflammation of the airways.*

Regardless of the seriousness of your asthma, it is sensible to be conscious of your surroundings and exposure to potential triggers (e.g. air pollution, environmental factors, etc.). And most of all, if you have been prescribed one, remember to always carry your inhaler.

Read on to learn about the top 4 common triggers of asthma attacks and how to best avoid them.

*A very similar reaction occurs for eczema sufferers. The body perceives an irritant as a threat and responds with inflammation of the skin. Interestingly, many eczema sufferers are at an increased risk of asthma.

1- Allergies

Anyone who has hayfever knows just how difficult it is to avoid pollen. You can spend the day indoors, with all the windows tightly shut, but if it’s a breezy summer’s day, somehow that pollen will find its way inside and trigger your allergies.

Unfortunately, it’s not just hayfever that can cause severe asthma attacks. There are hundreds of potential allergens that can leave you wheezing and hunting for an inhaler.

The most common allergens include:

  • pollen
  • dust mites/cockroaches
  • mould spores
  • pet dander
  • different foods

Exposure to any of these (if you are allergic) can convince your immune system that it’s under attack.

If you’re asthmatic, it helps to know your allergies. For example, if you’re allergic to certain pet hair, as sad as it might be, you should limit contact with that animal. It is also very important to communicate to others what your allergies might be, especially if your asthma is severe. If they don’t suffer from allergies themselves, they may struggle to understand. If they don’t listen, you should be firm in how you tell them or leave the situation entirely.

2- Respiratory infections

We all get sick from time to time. It’s an unfortunate reality of living and breathing the same air as others. However, if you suffer from asthma, a simple bacterial or viral infection could have more serious repercussions for you than for others. If the infection spreads to the lungs, it can exacerbate your asthma, causing an attack.

Different infections affect different areas of your respiratory system. The following are common infections (and viruses) that affect the throat, airways and lungs:

  • influenza
  • pneumonia
  • bronchitis
  • sinusitis
  • COVID-19
  • rhinovirus

If you believe you have contracted an infection, you should see your doctor. This is especially important if you ever struggle to breathe and find normal methods of asthma control do not work. In this scenario, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Fortunately, there are ways to limit your risk of catching an illness that might affect your breathing:

  • wash your hands regularly
  • avoid the shared use of items (especially cutlery and cups) with those who may be infected
  • get the flu vaccine when it is offered
  • do not share your inhalers with others
  • stay healthy (including getting the right amount of sleep)

3- Obesity

Although at first, it may be difficult to see the link between weight and asthma, carrying excess weight can have many invisible effects on your health. The link is perhaps most apparent in children.

In 2019, in the US, children classed as obese had a 26% higher incidence of asthma, compared to those at a healthy weight.

The exact reason for the connection between the two conditions is yet to be identified, however, it is generally accepted that if you have a larger chest and abdomen (which is the case if you’re overweight) the extra weight will constrict your lungs. In the case of exposure to an irritant, this will exaggerate asthma symptoms and make recovery from an attack more difficult.

In addition, being obese can also increase inflammation in your body. This is the result of fat tissues creating more of an inflammatory messenger (among other roles) called adipokines. As asthma is essentially inflammation of your airways, the increased volume of these is disadvantageous.

Sadly, on the flip side, asthma can also contribute to an increased risk of obesity. An inability to exercise properly can make losing weight even more of a challenge than normal. On top of this, the use of steroidal asthma treatments (such as inhaled corticosteroids) can increase appetite. If you find you are incapable of doing lots of exercise, you should focus on controlling your weight through diet and making movement where possible. You can speak to a dietitian for more advice on how to eat healthily, however, they will most likely advise smaller portions and focusing on consuming more fruits, vegetables and wholemeal grains.

4 - Smoking

We all know smoking is unhealthy. It can cause cardiovascular issues like heart disease and high blood pressure as well as cancers across your body, from your mouth to your bladder to your pancreas. But most of all, smoking damages your respiratory system - you are inhaling smoke after all.

In developed nations, behind dementia, heart disease and stroke (the latter two in many cases being caused by smoking), respiratory-related conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer, take the fourth, fifth and sixth places as the most common causes of death. Smoking is attributed as the main cause of all of these.

It should go without saying then that smoking is possibly the worst thing you can do if you have asthma or another breathing condition. When you inhale smoke, whether from a cigarette or another source, the noxious gasses cause irritation and inflammation. The result is narrower airways that become filled with mucus - the very symptoms of an asthma attack.

What about second-hand cigarette smoke?

Believe it or not, secondhand tobacco smoke is just as dangerous. Secondhand smoke contains over 7,000 harmful pollutants, including more dangerous ones than are inhaled. For this reason, it is important to educate family and friends on how their smoking can affect you. You should also avoid smoking sections in restaurants and communal areas. It is a frustrating reality, but one that should get easy as the world becomes more and more smoke-free.

Can I get treatment for asthma triggers?

If you suspect you may have asthma, the first thing you should do is to speak to your doctor. Your doctor will be able to determine whether or not you have the condition and if so, they will recommend the best asthma action plan. The severity of your condition will dictate if you need prescription medication and what that might be.

If you have previously been diagnosed, and you know what inhaler or other asthma medications you need, euroClinix offers an easy online order service. We stock many popular brands and medicines for a variety of conditions. For asthma, this includes; Ventolin, Clenil Modulite, Flixotide, Pulmicort, Qvar and many more.

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Anand Abbot Written by our editorial team
Last reviewed 12-06-2023
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