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Asthma Center

Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention of Asthma

author image Ann Wu, M.D., M.P.H.
Ann Wu, M.D., M.P.H., is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Boston, an asthma researcher and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She is also an investigator with the Pharmacogenetics of Asthma Treatment project, which is part of the Pharmacogenomics Research Network, and the lead investigator of the Population-Based Effectiveness in Asthma and Lung Diseases network. She blogs at asth.ma from her point of view as an asthma doctor, researcher and mom. She tweets from @Asthma3Ways.
Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention of Asthma
Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention of Asthma Photo Credit Getty Images


The exact cause of asthma is unknown and is complex and different for each person. Allergies play an important role in many adults and children with asthma. Genetics also play an important role, as asthma tends to run in families. If you have asthma, your child has a 20 percent chance of getting the disease. If one identical twin has asthma, the second twin has up to a 33 percent chance of also having it.

What Makes Asthma Worse?

Asthma triggers in the environment can make asthma worse and even cause an asthma attack. Each person’s asthma triggers are different, therefore it is important to talk to your doctor and identify the specific environmental triggers that worsen your asthma.

What Are The Most Common Asthma Triggers?

Common triggers of asthma include tobacco smoke, dust mites, outdoor air pollution, cockroaches, pets, mold and smoke from burning wood or grass.

Tobacco smoke is unhealthy for everyone, especially people with asthma. Unfortunately, the rate of smoking is actually higher in those with asthma as compared to those without asthma. If you have asthma and smoke, quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do to improve your symptoms. It’s very difficult to quit smoking, so getting help from your health care provider is often needed. If you are not a smoker, but you spend time with people who smoke, your asthma can be triggered by secondhand smoke. Asthma can also be triggered by thirdhand smoke, which is the smell of smoke on the clothing of somebody who smokes. So, even if a family member only smokes outside the home, he or she can trigger an asthma attack in an individual with asthma who breathes in the odors from the smoker’s clothing.

Dust mites are tiny bugs in most homes that can trigger an asthma attack. Mattress and pillowcase covers can create a barrier between dust mites and yourself.

What Else Makes Asthma Worse?

Other possible triggers include exposure to some chemicals, physical exercise, some medicines, weather changes, breathing in cold and dry air, some foods, fragrances and even strong emotions that lead to fast breathing or hyperventilation.

Other health conditions that can exacerbate asthma are influenza (flu), colds, sinus infections, seasonal allergies, acid reflux disease, stress and sleep apnea. These conditions also need to be treated in order to achieve adequate asthma control.

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