If you have asthma, you need to do what you can to cut your exposure to asthma triggers. That starts by knowing what causes you to cough, wheeze, and grasp for breath. While there’s no cure, there are steps you can take to keep your asthma in control and prevent an attack.
1. Identify Asthma Triggers
Certain asthma triggers can set off a cascade of asthma symptoms. These include:
- Air pollution
- Cold air
- A cold or flu virus
- Dust mites
- Pests, such as cockroaches
It’s vital to learn to identify your asthma triggers and take steps to avoid them.
Keep track of your symptoms in an asthma diary for several weeks. Detail all the environmental and emotional things that affect your asthma. When you have an asthma attack, check the diary to see which thing, or combination of things, might have led to it. Some common asthma triggers, like molds and cockroaches, aren’t always obvious. Ask your asthma specialist about tests to find the allergens you respond to. Then take steps to avoid them.
If you have exercise-induced asthma, are planning a heavy workout, or plan to exercise in cold, humid, or dry air, take steps to prevent an asthma attack. Follow your doctor's advice on asthma treatment (usually by using an asthma inhaler containing the drug albuterol before you exercise).
Regular physical activity is crucial for your overall health, including your lungs. One recent study found that people with asthma who exercised for 30 minutes a day were two and a half times more likely to have control over their symptoms, compared with those who didn't exercise at all.
If intense running or training is too tough for you, try activities like hiking, biking, and yoga. Swimming can be a great sport for people with asthma, since the warm, moist air around most pools usually doesn’t trigger symptoms.
Kids with asthma need to exercise and play sports, too. Just be sure your child takes their medicine as prescribed and has a quick-relief inhaler nearby at all times.
While food and drinks are not common asthma triggers, some – like beer, wine, potatoes, dried fruit, and shrimp – may contain compounds called sulfites that can make asthma worse for some people. So can some medicines, like aspirin and other pain relievers, or prescription drugs, such as some common high blood pressure meds (beta-blockers or ACE inhibitors). If you take these drugs and think they're affecting your asthma, ask your doctor if there are other options you can try.
2. Stay Away From Allergens
If you have allergies and asthma, it’s important to keep your distance from allergens (things you’re allergic to). Allergen exposure can increase the inflammation in your airways for a while, making an attack more likely.
3. Avoid Smoke of Any Type
Smoke and asthma are a bad mix. Limit exposure to all sources of smoke, including tobacco, incense, candles, fires, and fireworks. Don’t allow smoking in your home or car, and avoid public places that permit it. If you smoke cigarettes, get help to quit. Smoking always makes asthma worse.
4. Prevent Colds
Do what you can to stay well. Avoid close contact with people who have a cold or the flu, because catching it will make your asthma symptoms worse. Wash your hands well if you handle items that someone with a respiratory infection may have touched.
5. Allergy-Proof Your Home
Whether you’re at home, work, or traveling, there are things you can do to allergy-proof your environment and lower your chances of an asthma attack:
Wash your pillow every week in hot water – at least 130 F – to kill mites. You can also use cold or warm water with bleach. Wash sheets and blankets every week, too, as well as any stuffed toys your child sleeps with. Use a dehumidifier or an air conditioner to keep the humidity in your home between 30% and 50%, and remove carpet from the bedroom.
Regular vacuuming can help keep dust mites at bay. But if you have asthma, you may want to ask someone else to do it for you. A vacuum stirs up small particles that can irritate your lungs. So, if possible, stay away while it's happening and for a short time afterward.
Control pests in your home. They're often where food is. Try these tips to get rid of them:
- Remove as many water and food sources as you can.
- Clean dishes, crumbs, and spills right away.
- Store food in airtight containers.
- Keep trash in a closed container.
- Vacuum or sweep areas that might attract cockroaches or mice every 2-3 days.
- Clean and get rid of clutter on counters, sinks, tables, and floors.
- Seal cracks or openings in cabinets, walls, baseboards, and around plumbing.
- Use pesticide baits and traps, but keep them away from children
- Avoid using sprays and foggers, as these can trigger asthma attacks.
Reserve a smoke-free hotel room. If you can, bring your own bedding and pillows in case the hotel only supplies feather pillows and down comforters. They can house dust mites and cause asthma symptoms.
Don’t eat in restaurants that are smoky or allow cigarette smoking.
6. Get Your Vaccinations
Get a flu shot every year to protect against the flu virus, which can worsen your asthma for days or weeks. Asthma makes you more likely to have complications from the flu, like pneumonia, and to be hospitalized because of it. The CDC recommends pneumonia shots PCV15 or PCV20 for adults age 65 or older. Adults ages 19-64 with certain medical conditions or risk factors should also get one. Ask your doctor if you should.
You also have a higher chance of getting pneumococcal pneumonia, a common type of bacterial pneumonia. And you need a Tdap vaccine to protect you against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough, along with a zoster vaccine to keep you safe from shingles.
7. Consider Immunotherapy Allergy Shots
If your doctor finds that you have allergies, allergy shots (immunotherapy) may help prevent allergy symptoms and keep your asthma from getting worse. With allergy shots, the doctor injects small doses of allergens under your skin on a regular schedule. Over time, your body may get used to the allergen and respond less when you’re exposed. This can help keep your asthma under control.
8. Take Asthma Medications as Prescribed
Long-term asthma medications are designed to prevent symptoms and attacks. You need to take them every day, even if you don’t have symptoms. They’ll ease inflammation in your airways and keep your asthma under control, so it’s less likely to flare up. If side effects bother you, talk to your doctor about switching to another treatment.
9. Follow Your Asthma Action Plan
Take your meds, even when you feel OK. Keep an inhaler on you. If you notice symptoms, check your plan for instructions on what medications to take. During an attack, the plan can tell you what meds will help and when it’s time to call the doctor.
10. Use a Home Peak Flow Meter
The meter shows how well air is moving through your lungs. During an attack, your airways narrow. The meter can let you know this is happening hours or days before you have any symptoms. This gives you time to take the medications listed in your treatment plan and possibly stop the attack before it starts.