Risk Factors for an Asthma Attack

Some are surprising, while others are not

Different risk factors can increase your chances of having an asthma attack. Bottom line, if you have ever been diagnosed with asthma, you are at risk of an asthma attack.

A woman on a walk with shortness of breath

Burger / Phanie / Getty Images

You are at an increased risk of an attack if you:

  • Had a serious asthma attack in the past year
  • Required admission to a hospital for asthma in the past year
  • Develop asthma symptoms suddenly without noticing
  • Require frequent use of a rescue inhaler

This article explores both the modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors for asthma and what you can do to help reduce the risk of an attack.

Asthma Risk Factors

Asthma attacks—defined as increased asthma symptoms that interrupt your normal routine and require medical treatment—are more common among certain age groups, namely:

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

Other risk factors for asthma in 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.
  • History of allergies: If you are predisposed to allergic conditions, your risk of asthma increases. Nearly half of children with food allergies develop asthma.
  • Second-hand smoke: Children exposed to second-hand smoke are also more likely to develop asthma.
  • Urban living: Living in cities where there is significant air pollution, such as sulfur dioxide and ozone, can cause changes in the airways that lead to asthma.
  • Obesity: Studies show a link between asthma and obesity. Although the cause is unclear, it is possible the inflammation caused by obesity triggers changes in the lungs.
  • Low birth weight: It is thought that low birth weight increases a child's risk of all atopic diseases, including eczema and asthma.
  • Workplace exposure: Exposure to industrial chemicals and airborne particles can lead to occupational asthma.
  • Viral infection: A severe viral lung infection that causes wheezing in children is linked to an increased risk of asthma.

Recap

There are both non-modifiable risk factors for asthma, like family history and age, and modifiable ones, like smoking and obesity. Some risk factors, like air pollution, are modifiable but may not be easy to change.

Asthma Prevention

While there is nothing you can do about your age or family history, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of asthma. Chief among these is maintaining a healthy weight and quitting cigarettes. Both have been shown to reduce the severity or frequency of asthma attacks and, in some cases, erase them.

Some of the less commonly known things you can do to reduce your risk include:

  • Eating fruits and vegetables: Studies has shown a direct association between the high intake of fruits and vegetable and a reduced risk of asthma.
  • Increasing omega-3 fatty acids: Eating omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oil may help reduce lung hypersensitivity and the risk of asthma.
  • Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding is among the first steps in building a baby's immune system. Studies suggest that exclusive breastfeeding for the first three months of life reduces the risk of asthma compared to bottle-feeding babies.
  • Daycare: Studies suggest that placing a child in daycare before one year of age increases the risk of asthma while doing so after age one decreases it. The effect is due in part to the maturity of a child's immune system and how well it can control respiratory infections.

Recap

Weight loss and smoking cessation are recommended for people with asthma. Other interventions like diet, breastfeeding, and daycare attendance may help reduce the risk of developing asthma.

Asthma Action Plans

If you or your child has asthma, you need to develop an asthma action plan. Asthma action plans help you identify your triggers so that you can avoid them. It also ensures you can recognize the symptoms of an attack early so that you can treat them early.

The plan will list your controller medications and when you should take them. This not only includes rescue inhalers but also long-acting bronchodilators and inhaled steroids used to control asthma over the long term.

An action plan can help describe your symptoms using the stoplights as a guide. Green light means everything is good. Yellow light means you need to be cautious and have your rescue medications nearby. Red light means there impending trouble and that you need to be ready to act.

Each zone has specific actions that you or your child can be taught to follow. It can also help a child to communicate what they are experiencing to an adult.

Asthma actions plans should be revisited every now and then. This not only includes when asthma attacks are more frequent but also when they are less frequent. The plan may even change seasonally if, for example, hay fever is a common trigger for your asthma attacks.

Summary

There are numerous risk factors for asthma, some of which you can change (like smoking and obesity) and others you can't (like age and family history).

You can also reduce your risk of an asthma attack by changing modifiable risk factors. This includes quitting cigarettes if you smoke or losing weight if you are overweight or obese. There is also evidence that diet, breastfeeding, and daycare attendance can reduce the risk of developing asthma.

By understanding your risks, you can build an asthma plan so that you know how to recognize the symptoms of asthma and when to act. An action plan is especially useful in children with a history of asthma attacks.

Was this page helpful?
11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Toskala E, Kennedy DW. Asthma risk factors. Int Forum Allergy Rhinol. 2015 Sep;5 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S11-6. doi:10.1002/alr.21557

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most recent national asthma data. Updated March 30, 2021.

  3. American Lung Association. Asthma risk factors. Updated October 23, 2020.

  4. Di Palmo E, Gallucci M, Cipriani F, Bertelli L, Gianettis A, Ricci G. Asthma and food allergy: which risks? Medicina (Kaunas). 2019 Aug 21;55(9):509. doi:10.3390/medicina55090509

  5. Xu XF, Li YJ, Sheng YJ, Liu JL, Tang LF, Chen ZM. Effect of low birth weight on childhood asthma: a meta-analysis. BMC Pediatr. 2014 Oct 23;14:275. doi:10.1186/1471-2431-14-275

  6. Asthma UK. Can losing weight help your asthma? Updated November 2019.

  7. Garcia-Larsen V, Arthur R, Potts JF, et al. Is fruit and vegetable intake associated with asthma or chronic rhino-sinusitis in European adults? Results from the Global Allergy and Asthma Network of Excellence (GA2LEN) SurveyClin Transl Allergy. 2017;7:3. doi:10.1186/s13601-016-0140-9

  8. Berthon B, Wood L. Higher omega-3 index is associated with better asthma control and lower medication dose: a cross-sectional study. Nutrients. 2019 Dec 27;12(1):74. doi:10.3390/nu12010074

  9. Bigman G. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 3 months of life may reduce the risk of respiratory allergies and some asthma in children at the age of 6 years. Acta Paediatr. 2020 Aug;109(8):1627-33. doi:10.1111/apa.15162

  10. Sangrador CO, Blanco AV. Day-care center attendance and risk of asthma-a systematic review. Allergol Immunopathol (Madr). Nov-Dec 2018;46(6):578-84. doi:10.1016/j.aller.2018.03.006

  11. MacGillivray ME, Flavin MP. Canadian paediatric asthma action plans and their correlation with current consensus guidelines. Paediatr Child Health. 2014 Aug;19(7):362-6. doi:10.1093/pch/19.7.362