Emma is confused. Her mom just told her that they have to buy a special cover for the mattress in Emma's room and get rid of the soft, fuzzy rug on her floor. These changes will cut down on dust. And dust is one of Emma's asthma triggers, her doctor says. A trigger? Isn't that something on a gun?
What's a Trigger?
A trigger on a gun makes the bullet fire out. A trigger in asthma is something that causes asthma symptoms. People with asthma have what is called a chronic (say: krah-nik), or continuing, problem with their airways (the breathing tubes in a person's lungs). The airways become swollen and full of mucus. This problem is made worse by asthma triggers.
Triggers are things that don't bother most people, but they can make people with asthma cough, wheeze, and have trouble breathing. Triggers don't cause asthma (no one knows exactly what does) but they can lead to asthma flare-ups.
Every person with asthma has different triggers. Some people have one or two. Others have a dozen. Triggers may change from winter to summer. Some kids even outgrow triggers as they get older.
Common asthma triggers include:
- allergens (say: ah-lur-jenz) - things that cause allergic reactions
- stuff in the air, like smoke and pollution
- colds or the flu
- weather conditions
Asthma can't be cured but it can be managed. Managing asthma means doing everything you can to keep the symptoms (say: sim-tums) of asthma, like wheezing and coughing, from happening. One way to manage asthma is to stay away from triggers.
Your doctor will help you figure out your specific triggers. He or she may suggest that you keep an asthma diary for a couple of weeks. This means you or an adult will write down when and where you have symptoms and flare-ups. You also may see a special doctor called an allergist (say: ah-lur-jist), who can figure out if you have any allergies that might be causing your symptoms.
Learning about your triggers is one part of your asthma action plan that your doctor will help you write down. This plan will look at all the things you need to do to manage your asthma, from staying away from triggers to taking medicines.
Dealing With Triggers
Allergens are a very common trigger. They include:
- dust mites (tiny insects that live in dust)
- pollen (a kind of dust that comes from plants)
- animal dander (skin flakes that are kind of like dandruff)
- animal saliva and urine
You won't be able to stay away from all allergens, but there are some things you can do.
- Keep your room as clean and free of dust as possible. This means vacuuming and dusting weekly and getting rid of clutter. Your old stuffed animals may need to go into a box in the attic.
- Wash your sheets weekly in hot water. You can get covers for your mattress, box spring, and pillows that will help too.
- Get rid of carpets. Any kind of rug or carpeting can collect allergens that cause asthma symptoms.
- Keep any pets out of your room. Before you spend the night at a friend's house, find out what kinds of pets he or she has.
If your asthma symptoms are triggered by allergies, you might also need to take allergy medication or have allergy shots. Your doctor will let you know.
Irritants Can Irritate
Stuff in the air, also called irritants (say: ir-uh-tunts), are different from allergens because they bother people who don't have allergies or asthma, too. For most people, irritants aren't a serious problem, but for people with asthma, they can lead to flare-ups. Common irritants include perfumes and aerosol (say: ar-uh-sol) sprays, such as hair spray and cleaners. Other irritants include wood and tobacco smoke, the smell given off by paint or gas, and air pollution.
If you notice that an irritant triggers your asthma, let an adult know, so he or she can keep it away from you. This might mean switching to different hair sprays or cleaning products. If smoke bothers you, it's probably a good idea to avoid fires in the fireplace or woodstove. And of course, no one should smoke cigarettes or other tobacco products around you.
If outdoor air pollution is a problem, running the air conditioner or an air cleaner can help. Having an adult check air quality reports on the news might also be a good idea. On days when the quality is especially bad, you might want to stay indoors.
Colds and the flu are harder to avoid, but you can cut down on the number of sicknesses you catch by washing your hands regularly and staying away from people who are sick. Getting a flu shot each year is a good idea, too.
Weather can also be a trigger. Windy conditions may stir up pollens and molds. Rain can wash pollen from trees and grasses so it starts moving around in the air. Very cold or very hot weather may trigger asthma and so can humidity (when the air has a lot of moisture in it).
If you know that certain weather conditions make your asthma worse, an adult can help you avoid your triggers. An adult should keep an eye on the forecast - on some days, you may need to spend less time outdoors. If cold weather is the problem, you'll want to have a scarf that will cover your nose and mouth when you go outside.
Exercise like running or playing a sport is another common trigger. But this is one trigger that you shouldn't avoid because it's important for your health. Your doctor will want you to be active, so talk with him or her about what to do before playing sports. For instance, you might need to take medicine 10 or 15 minutes before you exercise or play sports. And, of course, you'll want to have your rescue medication with you all the time.
You won't be able to keep away from all triggers all the time. But by staying away from triggers as much as possible, you can help prevent flare-ups. In other words, you can keep those triggers from getting pulled!
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: June 2007