Are Asthma Irritants Triggering Your Symptoms?

Asthma irritants are airborne substances that when inhaled act as an asthma trigger. However, they differ from allergens in that they do not generate an immune response. Instead, they just further irritate already inflamed airways. All of these asthma irritants lead to asthma symptoms, such as chest tightness, chronic cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

Exposure to these irritants may lead not only to these symptoms but other signs like:

  • Increased cough at night
  • Any of the above mentioned symptoms such as cough or wheezing with increased levels of physical activity
  • Tiredness or inability to complete activities that are normally completed easily
  • Decreases in peak expiratory flow rate or PEFR
  • Restless sleep, nightmares, or waking up tired and not well-rested
  • Worsening allergy symptoms like persistent runny nose, dark circles under your eyes, or itchy and inflamed skin

Let's take a closer look at leading asthma triggers:

Tobacco Smoke

secondhand smoke

Tobacco smoke is a powerful asthma trigger, whether you are the one doing the smoking or if you are just breathing in secondhand smoke from someone else's cigarette, cigar, or pipe. Not only is tobacco smoke harmful to people known to have asthma, but some studies have suggested that children whose mothers smoke are much more likely to develop asthma themselves.

Smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic or may cause cancer. All of these asthma irritants land in the airways of the lungs and irritate their lining, leading directly to symptoms. Additionally, these irritants and toxins damage small tiny hairs in the airways, called cilia, that work to keep irritants out of the lungs. As a result, your body becomes less able to defend against irritants.

Air Pollutants

air pollution

Besides tobacco smoke, there can be many other air pollutants in the atmosphere that can irritate your airways and trigger asthma symptoms. It's not surprising that emissions from cars, factories, and power plants are a major cause of asthma attacks. This is a particular challenge because four in 10 Americans live in cities with bad air. 

Not only does this bad air make your asthma worse, but it may also contribute to the development of asthma. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that as much as 30 percent of childhood asthma (at a cost of two billion dollars) is due to environmental exposures.

In fact, in one study preformed in Los Angeles, CA, there was an association between living near a road and the development of asthma. Nearly 10 percent of asthma cases in LA county lived within 75 meters of a major road. This suggests—but does not prove—that air pollution and living close to its source impacts the development of asthma.

Airborne Particles From Dust and Powders

chalk dust

Yet another type of irritant is the dust and powder associated with certain substances, such as chalk or cleaning products. Many of these asthma irritants are encountered mostly on the job or at school.

However, other airborne particles around the home, work, and school can also lead to problems. For example, sometimes young asthmatic athletes experience problems when the playground or park they are practicing in recently had the grass cut.

Chemical Fumes and Strong Odors


Another type of asthma irritant is the fumes and strong odors that emanate from certain chemicals or products you may use. These chemical irritants include some common, everyday things such as cleaning solutions and perfume, but also some unique job-specific substances as well.

You might be having fragrance sensitivity if you are experiencing sneezing, wheezing, or develop itchy watery eyes with exposure. Many asthma patients report a worsening of their symptoms with exposure to certain chemicals or strong smells.


moldy bathroom

If mold is present in your home, it may be making your asthma worse. You may not even be aware where the mold may be growing. Any place that is damp and wet, like surfaces in the bathroom, kitchen, or basement, can grow mold. You might not even recognize it as mold.

Mold can lead to chest tightness, cough, shortness of breath, or wheezing. You need to think about mold in your home—if you see it growing, see a discoloration, or you have many musty odors, you need to have it remediated.

You can prevent mold by cleaning surfaces thoroughly, repairing leaks, and making sure that you do not allow water to build up anywhere in the home. If you find mold growing in your home, you will need to make sure those areas are well ventilated and that you repair any leaky pipes or other sources of water. If you need to repaint you will want to consider a "mold resistant" option to avoid mold buildup in the future. 

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