People with asthma have sensitive airways that can react to different triggers in their environment. For some people with asthma, ongoing exposure to triggers can cause continued inflammation (swelling and redness) and excess mucus production in the airways, making a person's asthma worse.
Atopy is the genetic tendency to develop allergic conditions. Many people with asthma are atopic and have an increased risk of developing other allergic conditions. If you are atopic, some allergens can be trigger factors, which can cause increased asthma symptoms and reduced asthma control when exposed.
Other allergic reactions may include:
- allergic rhinitis (or hay fever) - sneezing, blocked and runny nose, itchy eyes and throat
- eczema - dry, red, itchy skin
- hives - skin rashes
- anaphylaxis - a severe form of an allergic reaction that is potentially life-threatening.
Identifying asthma triggers
Asthma is often initially recognised by people when symptoms get worse in response to particular allergens or other triggers. Everyone's asthma is different, and everyone has different triggers. For most people with asthma, however, triggers are only a problem when their asthma is not well-controlled.
Identifying and reducing exposure to your allergen triggers may improve your asthma control and make your asthma symptoms easier to manage, but it is important you talk with your doctor about how to manage the allergen. Your doctor may prescribe medication and advise how to reduce your exposure to your allergen triggers if appropriate. They may also update your Asthma Action Plan
If you think you are suffering from an allergy, keep a symptom diary to record the times and situations when your asthma is worse and to help identify triggers. Then see your doctor for advice.
While allergy avoidance measures may help to reduce exposure to allergen triggers, using your asthma medication as directed is a cheaper and more effective way of dealing with your asthma.
Types of asthma triggers
There are two types of triggers that can flare up someone's asthma. These are allergic (allergens) and non-allergic (irritants) triggers.
Allergens that trigger asthma
Allergens are any substance that can bring on an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction occurs when your immune system reacts to substances in the environment that are harmless to other people. If you are allergic to something, then eating it, inhaling it, injecting it or touching it can bring on an allergic reaction.
Asthma symptoms can occur when an allergen is breathed into the lungs of a sensitive person. This leads to swelling of the lining of the airways and tightening of the muscles around the airway, which causes narrowing of the airway and difficulty in breathing.
The most common allergic triggers for asthma are house dust mites, pets (animal dander), pollen and mould.
Other types of asthma triggers
It's not just allergens that can trigger asthma symptoms. Other common triggers include:
- respiratory viruses (common cold)
- some medications
- cigarette smoke
- cold, dry air
- exercise and physical activity
- wood fire smoke
One of the most common triggers for asthma flare-ups is exercise and physical activity. This is one trigger not to avoid if possible, as exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.
Allergy testing for asthma
There are two main allergy tests that can help to pinpoint your allergens, skin prick tests and blood tests for serum specific IgE.
Skin prick tests are performed at your doctor's office or medical clinic. The doctor puts small dabs of different allergen solutions, such as pollen extract, along your arm. Then the doctor slightly pricks the skin underneath with a needle. If you are allergic to the allergen the skin swells or develops a welt.
Serum specific IgE allergy tests are blood tests. They can diagnose all types of allergy, but provide less specific results than skin prick testing.
These skin and blood tests are not conclusive in determining asthma triggers. Just because your skin and blood reacts to the allergen, doesn't mean your lungs will too. Think of these tests as a helpful starting point. Tests such as these should only ever be performed under the guidance of a doctor or allergy specialist.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Anaphylaxis Australia Tel. 1300 728 000
- The Asthma Foundation of Victoria Tel. 1800 ASTHMA (278 462)
Things to remember
- Before you make any changes to your home or lifestyle, you should check if you really do have an allergy by seeing your doctor for allergy testing.
- While allergy avoidance measures may help to reduce exposure to allergen triggers, using your asthma medication as directed is a cheaper and more effective way of dealing with your asthma.
- If you think you are suffering from an allergy, keep a symptom diary to record the times and situations when your asthma is worse and to help identify triggers.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Asthma Foundation of Victoria
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