An asthma attack is a frightening experience, especially for children and infants. Airways become narrow and inflamed, producing excess mucus, and muscles around airways contract. Coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness make breathing, particularly exhaling, difficult.
Fortunately, attacks can be controlled for the estimated 17 million Americans who have asthma, doctors say. Knowing what triggers your symptoms can reduce the chance of having an asthma attack, says Dr. Eric Gershwin, a Sacramento, Calif., asthma specialist.
Allergens frequently trigger attacks, so its imperative to identify and remove them, experts say.
The first step in managing asthma is to prevent attacks before they start, says asthma specialist Dr. Beth Corn of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. An allergist can perform skin tests that will help you determine what allergens may be causing asthma flare-ups, she says.
The most common is a scratch or prick test, in which a doctor places small drops of an allergen on your skin and scratches it lightly with a needle. After a few minutes, a welt or red area may appear, indicating the skins degree of sensitivity to the allergen.
Once your doctor determines the cause of your breathing problems, you can steer clear of your asthma triggers. Some of the most common asthma-causing allergens include animal saliva, animal dander, and dust mites.
Minimize dust in your home by encasing mattresses, box springs, and pillows in dust-proof coverings that hinder the growth of dust mites. High quality air filters for your furnace can trap hundreds of tiny dust particles; look for micro allergen or dust and pollen air filters. Using a vacuum cleaner with a high-energy particulate air (HEPA) filter also can reduce dust mites.
Tobacco smoke triggers asthma attacks, so avoid smoking indoors and in the car. If you need help quitting, a smoking cessation group can provide support.
Outdoor allergens such as pollen, grass, and ragweed also can cause asthma. Gershwin recommends limiting outdoor exposure on windy days and washing your clothes and your hair when you return inside. Pollen counts usually are lowest in the morning, so try to limit your time outside to early morning hours. If you work outdoors, wearing a face mask can considerably reduce asthma symptoms, Gershwin says.
Pollen also can trigger asthma when youre indoors. Keep windows closed whenever possible and wash curtains and windowsills with hot soapy water (130 degrees) weekly to get rid of pollen or molds.
Finally, never skip taking your asthma medications, even if you are feeling well. Remember to keep your medicine with you at all times, including any inhalers that you use regularly.