A trigger is something that sets off or starts asthma symptoms. Everyone’s asthma is different, and everyone has different triggers. For most people with asthma, triggers are only a problem when their asthma is not well-controlled with medicine. See Controlling your asthma for help with this.
There are lots of different triggers, and they might be something that you:
- catch (cold or flu);
- breathe in (cold air, humidity, allergens, irritants, smoke);
- feel (strong emotions, reflux);
- do (exercise/physical activity);
- eat/drink/take (foods/additives, medication, alternative therapies); or
- use (latex)
Trying to avoid triggers isn’t likely to make much difference to your asthma, but can often place limits on your lifestyle. It’s best to focus on getting your asthma under control with the right medicine and living a full and active life. You should always carry your blue reliever with you so you are prepared in case you come across a trigger.
Common triggers to live with
Colds and flu
Colds and flu are viral infections and are the most common trigger for asthma flare-ups. You can’t really avoid them, but you can reduce your risk of catching viral infections from family members or other contacts by washing your hands before you eat or touch your face, and it’s a good idea to have the flu jab every year.
Managing your stress can help keep your asthma under control – find an approach that works for you, such as relaxation, exercise etc.
Cold dry air
In winter in colder climates try to breathe through your nose to help warm and moisten the air before it reaches your airways.
Triggers you should definitely NOT avoid
If you get asthma symptoms when you exercise, first check that you are using your preventer medicine correctly and taking it every day. See your doctor for a review – they may change your preventer medicine, and/or advise you how to use your medicine before you exercise. Your asthma should be controlled enough so you are able to do as much exercise as you like. Read more about exercise and asthma. [link to EIB fact sheet]
Laughing is a common trigger for wheeze, especially in children. If it happens frequently or becomes an issue, then a change in asthma medicine might be needed
It’s not something most people like to talk about, but if you find asthma is limiting your sex life, it probably means your asthma is not quite under control. Don’t just put up with it; let your doctor know and ask for a medication review.
Triggers to avoid
Cigarette smoke makes asthma symptoms worse and stops the preventer medicine working fully. It has been linked with more asthma flare-ups and a higher risk of developing asthma in children. Quitting can be difficult; you can find more information about asthma and smoking and where to get help by downloading this brochure (PDF 1.2MB).
Some work-related triggers e.g. spray paint. Use protective equipment.
Indoor air pollution
Make sure your house is well ventilated if you use gas, wood or coal for heating or cooking. Gas heaters should have a chimney or vent to outside.
Medication for non-asthma related conditions
There are some medicines for other conditions that either should not be taken by people with asthma, or they should be used with caution, as they can make it worse. Make sure your doctor and pharmacist know that you have asthma when you are prescribed medicine for any other condition.
- For most people with asthma, beta-blockers (used for high blood pressure, heart failure or as eyedrops for glaucoma) will make their asthma worse.
- For some people with asthma, aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen and diclofenac may make their asthma worse. These are available without prescription from supermarkets or pharmacies, but you should check with your pharmacist or doctor before using them.
Cat allergen is very hard to avoid. If you are allergic to cats, even keeping your cat outside is unlikely to stop you getting symptoms.
If grass pollen is a problem for you then thunderstorms in spring and summer may also affect you, because there’s more dust and pollen blown around, and the storms can make the pollen explode into tiny pieces that get further into your airways. Stay inside with the windows and doors closed until after the storm has passed.
There are many products advertised to reduce asthma triggers, but most of these have not been proven to make any difference to asthma symptoms or reduce flare-ups. Asthma Australia strongly advises you do careful research on any products you are considering using. Call the 1800 ASTHMA Helpline or email to discuss specific products further.
Asthma Australia has a clear position on product endorsement. Read about it here.
- If your response to a trigger starts with hayfever (itching of the nose, sneezing, itchy eyes), treating the hayfever may reduce the chance of your asthma getting worse
- If your response to a trigger includes symptoms such as swelling of the lips or mouth, or skin rashes, this may indicate a serious allergy and it is important to see your doctor immediately. You may need special testing to identify the trigger and extra medicine for safety
- For some people with a single allergic trigger, management with long-term desensitisation (immunotherapy) may be an option
Taking your medication, having an asthma management plan, knowing asthma first aid and regular check-ups with your GP are the most important steps you can take to improve your asthma control.
For more information on triggers, contact the 1800 ASTHMA Helpline, and download the Triggers brochure (PDF 800.1KB).