If you have asthma, exposure to certain triggers can cause a flare-up or an attack. Avoiding your triggers and making an asthma action plan can help you prevent an attack before it happens—and steer clear of the ER.
What is asthma?
Asthma causes inflammation in the airways of the lungs. Exposure to certain triggers can cause the airways to swell and the muscles to tighten, resulting in a flare-up or an attack. Symptoms of an asthma attack include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest.
Asthma triggers vary from person to person
Not everyone with asthma has the same triggers. Knowing and avoiding your triggers can help you prevent an attack before it happens. Common asthma triggers include:
- Tobacco smoke. Using tobacco is unhealthy, even if you don’t have asthma. If you smoke, ask your doctor to help you quit smoking—and consider enrolling in an APWU Health Plan Tobacco Cessation Program. Secondhand smoke can also trigger an asthma attack, so don’t let anyone smoke in your home, car, or workplace.
- Dust mites. These microscopic bugs in your home can trigger an asthma attack. To reduce dust mites, wash your bedding each week and dry it completely. Also, regularly vacuum carpets and floors using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
- Air pollution. Pay attention to weather reports about poor air quality and avoid being outside when air pollution levels are high.
- Pets. Some people are allergic to proteins in the skin, saliva, or urine of animals—and allergic reactions can trigger asthma attacks. Keep your pets out of the bedroom, and use an air cleaner with HEPA filter in your home.
- Mold. Fungus and mold often grow in damp kitchens, bathrooms, and basements and in places that have suffered water damage. To reduce mold in your home, fix water leaks and leaky pipes, scrub mold off hard surfaces with detergent and water, and run the exhaust fan when showering.
- Anxiety and stress. Strong emotions can trigger asthma attacks. Eating a healthy diet, staying active, and getting plenty of sleep can help reduce anxiety and stress.
How to avoid the ER if you have asthma
A severe asthma attack can send you to the emergency room, especially if your medicine isn’t working properly or you’re away from home without your inhaler. Getting your asthma under control—and making an asthma action plan—can help prevent visits to the ER.
Talk to your doctor about creating a plan for managing your asthma. Your plan may include medications to prevent symptoms and detailed instructions on what to do when you’re having a flare-up.
1. Follow your plan. When you have an asthma action plan, you’ll always know what to do in case of a flare-up. Include any daily requirements in your plan (such as taking medicine before you exercise), and work with your doctor to adjust your plan as needed.
2. Take your medicine. Maintenance medications can help prevent asthma flare-ups—and make them less severe—so be sure to take your medicine as prescribed.
3. Don’t leave home without your inhaler. Always carry your quick-relief medicine, whether you’re at work, at the grocery store, traveling, or just out for a walk.
4. Learn the signs of a flare-up. Early warning signs of a flare-up may include shortness of breath, sudden fatigue, irregular breathing, or trouble sleeping. Know what to do if you notice signs of a flare-up.
When to seek medical care for an asthma attack
When you have asthma, you may need to go to the emergency room from time to time. Visit the ER if your flare-up doesn’t get any better after taking your asthma medicine or if your symptoms come back quickly.
Experiencing any of the following symptoms may also require emergency care:
- Frequent wheezing
- Persistent cough
- Chest pain
- Lips or fingernails turning blue or gray
- Trouble breathing, talking, or walking
Asthma is a serious condition, but if you take your medication as prescribed and develop a plan for managing it, you may never need to visit the emergency room.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), Asthma Triggers and Management