Risk Factors for an Asthma Attack

Some Are Surprising, Others Are Not

A number of different asthma risk factors may increase your chances of developing an asthma attack. If you have a diagnosis of asthma, you are at risk for an asthma attack. You are at an increased risk of a significant asthma attack if you:

  • Have had a serious asthma attack in the past
  • Required admission to a hospital or intensive care unit to care for your asthma in the last year
  • Develop symptoms suddenly or asthma attacks seem to creep up on you without you noticing a change in your symptoms
  • Require frequent use of your rescue inhaler
  • Have a history of substance abuse
  • Have a history of significant mental illness

Some of the asthma risk factors are avoidable—such as exposure to smoking and eating certain foods—while others are not avoidable or modifiable, like family history. Finally, there are also a handful of protective asthma risk factors that decrease your risk of asthma.

A woman on a walk with shortness of breath

BURGER / PHANIE / Getty Images

Asthma attacks—or any acute change in asthma symptoms that interrupt a person's normal routine and require either extra medication or some other intervention to breathe normally again—are more common among:

  • Children 5 years of age and younger
  • Adults in their 30s
  • Adults over the age of 65

Asthma Risk Factors

Additional asthma risk factors in both adults and children include:

  • Family history: If you have a parent with asthma you are two to six times more likely to develop asthma compared to someone whose parents do not have asthma.
  • If you are predisposed to allergic conditions, your risk of asthma increases. Nearly half of children with eczema or atopic dermatitis develop asthma.
  • A personal history of allergies
  • Exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Urban living, especially if there is significant air pollution—pollutants such as sulfur dioxide irritate the airways, leading to constriction and asthma symptoms.
  • Low levels of vitamin D
  • Obesity: Multiple research studies have demonstrated an increase of asthma in the overweight and obese. There is some evidence that obesity increases the risk for non-allergic asthma types.
  • Low birth weight
  • Being born in the winter months
  • Workplace exposures to chemicals or other substances that may lead to occupational asthma
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Sinusitis
  • Antibiotic use in the first year of life
  • Eating a lot of fast food
  • Regular acetaminophen use
  • Ozone exposure: Ozone is a major component of smog that increases traditional asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.

While there is nothing you can do about your age or family history, it is important to keep these above things in mind, along with maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding cigarette smoke.

On the other hand, the following things can actually reduce your risk of developing an asthma attack:

  • Increased intake of fruits and vegetables
  • Community resources such as economic development opportunities
  • Eating omega-3 fatty acids found in fish
  • Have an asthma action plan and understand how to implement it

If you're hoping to reduce the risk of your child developing asthma, there are other controllable factors:

  • Breastfeeding your child (lowers your baby's risk of developing asthma)
  • Attendance at daycare
  • Large family size

Have an Asthma Action Plan

If you are your child have a known history of asthma, you need to make sure that you have an updated asthma action plan. Asthma action plans will help you do the day-to-day things needed to prevent an asthma attack and identify early warning signs of an asthma attack so that you can take action.

In terms of prevention, the action plan will identify all of your known triggers and the things that you need to do to avoid them. Additionally, the plan will list your controller medications and how you should be taking them. You will need to develop a plan so that you remember to take your medication and make sure that you are getting the medicine you need to prevent asthma symptoms.

An action plan is also a tool that will monitor your symptoms using the familiar stoplight as a guide. When you are in the green zone, everything is good. In the yellow zone, you need to be cautious, and the red zone is impending trouble. You will know what zone you are in by tracking either peak flows or symptoms. Each zone will have specific actions for you to take to improve your asthma control. Think of the asthma action plan as your road map to better breathing and improved asthma symptoms.

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