Asthma Irritants: Do You Know What Is Making Your Asthma Worse?

Are Asthma Irritants Triggering Your Symptoms?

Asthma irritants are airborne substances that when inhaled act as an asthma trigger. However, they differ from allergens in that they do not generate an immune response. Instead, they just further irritate already inflamed airways. All of these asthma irritants lead to asthma symptoms such as:

Exposure to these irritants may lead not only yo these symptoms but other signs like:

  • Increased cough at night
  • Any of the above mentioned symptoms such as cough or wheezing with increased levels of physical activity
  • Tiredness or inability to complete activities that you normally complete easily
  • Decreases in your peak expiratory flow rate  or PEFR
  • Restless sleep, nightmares or waking up tired not feeling well rested
  • Worsening allergy symptoms like persistent runny nose, dark circles under your eyes or itchy, inflamed skin

Tobacco Smoke

Secondhand Smoke. Photo © Sean Gallup/ Getty Images

Tobacco smoke is a powerful asthma trigger, whether you are the one doing the smoking or if you are just breathing in secondhand smoke from someone else's cigarette, cigar or pipe. Not only is tobacco smoke harmful to people known to have asthma, but some studies have suggested that children whose mothers smoke are much more likely to develop asthma themselves. Smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic or may cause cancer. All of these asthma irritants land in the airways of the lung and irritate your lungs lining and lead directly to symptoms. Additionally, these irritants and toxins damage small tiny hairs in the airways called cilia that work to keep irritants out of the lung. As a result, your body becomes less able to defend against irritants.

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Air Pollutants

Pollution can worsen asthma symptoms, particularly in cities.

Besides tobacco smoke, there can be many other air pollutants in your atmosphere that can irritate your airways and trigger asthma symptoms. It is likely not surprising that emissions from from cars, factories and power plants are a major cause of asthma attacks. This is a particular challenge because 4 in 10 Americans live in cities with bad air. 

Not only is does this bad air make your asthma worse, but it may also contribute to the development of asthma. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that as much as 30% of childhood asthma (at a cost of 2 billion dollars) is due to environmental exposures. In fact in one study preformed in Los Angeles, CA there was an association between living near a road and the development of asthma. Nearly 10% of asthma cases in LA County lived within 75 meters of a major road. This suggests (but does not prove) that air pollution and living close to its source impacts the development of asthma.

Airborne Particles From Dust & Powders

Air Pollution Facts
Air Pollution Facts. Howard Kingsnorth

Yet another type of irritant is the dust and powder associated with certain substances such as chalk dust, dust in school or work, or cleaning products . Many of these asthma irritants are encountered mostly on the job or at school. However, other airborne particles around the home, work, and school can also lead to problems. For example, sometimes young asthmatic athletes experience problems when the playground or park they are practicing recently had the grass cut.

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Chemical Fumes and Strong Odors

Odors and Asthma
Asthma Irritants- Perfume. Getty Images Entertainment- Laura Lezza

Another type of asthma irritant is the fumes and strong odors that emanate from certain chemicals or products you may use. These chemical irritants include some common, everyday things such as cleaning solutions and perfume, but also some unique job-specific substances as well.

You might be having fragrance sensitivity if you are experiencing sneezing, wheezing, or develop itchy watery eyes with exposure. Many asthma patients report a worsening of their symptoms with exposure to certain chemicals or strong smells.

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Is Mold Making Your Asthma Worse?
Mold and Asthma. Matthew Mullan / EyeEm

If mold is present in your home, it may be making your asthma worse. You may not even be aware where mold may be growing. Any place that is damp and wet like surfaces in the bathroom, kitchen, or basement can grow mold. You might not even recognize it as mold like the adjacent picture.

Mold can lead to chest tightness, cough, shortness of breath, or wheezing. You need to think about mold in your home if you see it growing (as in the adjacent picture), see a discoloration, or you have many musty odors.

You can prevent mold by cleaning surfaces thoroughly, repairing leaks, and making sure that you do not allow water to build up anywhere in the home.

If you find mold growing in your home you will need to make sure the areas are well ventilated and that you repair any leaky pipes or other sources of water. If you need to repaint you will want to consider a "mold resistant" one to avoid mold buildup in the future. Controlling mold can improve your asthma symptoms.

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Do You Have Questions or Want To Join Our Group?

What's Your Biggest Asthma Problem?
What's Your Biggest Asthma Problem?. Pat Bass

Our private Facebook group is a supportive community where you can ask questions, get information about how others solve problems you have, interact with other parents or patients with asthma. You may just need or want to give some encouragement or support. Joining gets you helpful information, tips and support--you are not alone in dealing with asthma.

If you do not want to venture out into a new group, feel free to email me email me and I will do my best to respond back to you. Please consider sharing this information with your preferred social network using one of the social sharing buttons if you found it helpful.

Asthma Irritants and Asthma Control

If you cannot identify and avoid asthma irritants you will have a difficult time achieving asthma control. If you are having trouble with your asthma take a minute and consider these types of irritants as they may not always be obvious to you. This article was edited by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MS, MPH.

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