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What triggers an asthma attack?

 

Asthma is a chronic breathing disorder characterized by recurrent attacks of breathlessness and wheezing. Some causes and triggers are common to all people with asthma, and some are more individual. Although the fundamental causes of asthma are not completely understood, the strongest risk factors for developing asthma are inhaled asthma triggers.

These include:

  • indoor allergens (for example house dust mites in bedding, carpets and stuffed furniture, pollution and pet dander);

  • outdoor allergens (such as pollens and moulds);

  • tobacco smoke; and

  • chemical irritants in the workplace.

 

Other triggers can include cold air, extreme emotional arousal such as anger or fear, and physical exercise. In some people, asthma can even be triggered by certain medications, such as aspirin and other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, and beta-blockers (which are used to treat high blood pressure, heart conditions and migraine). Urbanization has also been associated with an increase in asthma, however the exact nature of this relationship is unclear.

 

According to WHO estimates, 235 million people suffer from asthma globally. Although asthma cannot be cured, appropriate management can control the disorder and enable people to enjoy good quality of life. In addition, some children with milder forms of asthma outgrow their symptoms with age.

The causes

The fundamental causes of asthma are not completely understood. The strongest risk factors for developing asthma are a combination of genetic predisposition with environmental exposure to inhaled substances and particles that may provoke allergic reactions or irritate the airways, such as:

  • indoor allergens (for example, house dust mites in bedding, carpets and stuffed furniture, pollution and pet dander)

  • outdoor allergens (such as pollens and moulds)

  • tobacco smoke

  • chemical irritants in the workplace

  • air pollution.

Other triggers can include cold air, extreme emotional arousal such as anger or fear, and physical exercise. Even certain medications can trigger asthma: aspirin and other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, and beta-blockers (which are used to treat high blood pressure, heart conditions and migraine).

Urbanization has been associated with an increase in asthma. But the exact nature of this relationship is unclear.

Reducing the asthma burden

Although asthma cannot be cured, appropriate management can control the disease and enable people to enjoy a good quality of life. Short-term medications are used to relieve symptoms. Medications such as inhaled corticosteroids are needed to control the progression of severe asthma and reduce asthma exacerbation and deaths.

People with persistent symptoms must take long-term medication daily to control the underlying inflammation and prevent symptoms and exacerbations. Inadequate access to medicines and health services is one of the important reasons for the poor control of asthma in many settings.

Medication is not the only way to control asthma. It is also important to avoid asthma triggers - stimuli that irritate and inflame the airways. With medical support, each asthma patient must learn what triggers he or she should avoid.

Although asthma does not kill on the scale of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other chronic diseases, failure to use appropriate medications or to adhere to treatment can lead to death.