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Unusual Causes for Asthma Attacks

Odd Things that May Trigger Asthma Attacks

Asthma is an ongoing breathing disorder characterized by difficulty breathing, coughing and sometimes wheezing. About half of all asthma attacks are produced by various allergens, which irritate and inflame the airways; the rest can be caused by factors that have nothing to do with allergies, but which still irritate the airways and cause them to constrict.

Some asthma triggers are common to all asthma sufferers, while others are more individual. Well-known asthma triggers include:

  • Indoor allergens, such as dust mites in mattresses, carpeting, upholstered furniture, stuffed toys, curtains, mini-blinds, etc.; pet dander or pet hair; pest droppings
  • Outdoor allergens like pollens, molds, pollution from automobiles, gasoline fumes (in these cases, it is best to avoid going outdoors when pollen or mold counts are high, or during times of heavy traffic, like during rush hour)
  • Cigarette smoke

Most families who have children diagnosed with asthma already know about those triggers. But there are other, lesser known factors that cause asthma attacks that families do well to learn about. If you and your child learn what triggers the attacks, you will know to avoid these factors, or at the very least prepare for them.

These include:

  • Strenuous exercise, which causes people to hyperventilate, thereby inhaling more pollutants from the air. Another reason heavy exercise can trigger asthma attacks is that when we are out of breath, we tend to breathe through our mouths rather tan our noses, which means air is not filtered through the tiny hairs inside the nose
  • Some medications like aspirin and other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (examples of brand names: Advil, Motrin, Aleve); acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) is not a NSAID, but studies have found that children who were given this drug have a higher risk of developing asthma later
  • Extreme emotional arousal, including anger, fear, intense crying and heavy laughter

Many people will be surprised to learn that emotions can induce asthma attacks. With the four above emotions, an asthma episode can occur because we tend to hyperventilate, breathe more heavily, when we get angry, scared, cry or laugh. The more air a person takes in, the more contaminants they inhale, and the likelier the bronchi — the tubes that transport air to the lungs — are to become irritated and inflamed.

Doctors who treat people with asthma warn that such folks may think they’re just out of breath after a good laugh or cry, when in fact, they may be having an asthma attack.

Strong Emotions as Triggers for Asthma Attacks

With respect to getting angry, scared or crying, there is another factor that contributes to the greater likelihood of an asthma episode during those emotional states: the emotional upset itself.

The connection between negative emotions and disease has been known to medical doctors since the times of ancient Greece. In an article published in the National Institutes of Health’s online publication PubMed, Paul Lehrer, PhD, of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University, explains that as the “fight” components of the “fight or flight” reflex, the psychologic (mental) and physiologic (physical) elements of anger and stress overlap — that is, both anger and stress can lead to similar or the same results in our minds and bodies.

Studies have shown that factors that produce stress in someone weaken their immune system, thereby increasing the person’s susceptibility to illness, or worsening existing symptoms in conditions like asthma, upper respiratory infection, different skin diseases, bowel dysfunction, and indeed, a number of other illnesses, including common ones such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

Dr. Lehrer explains that stress is particularly linked to the occurrence and severity of asthma. A 2005 study found that emotional stress leads to an increased risk of developing allergy-induced asthma, atopic dermatitis (more commonly known as eczema) and other allergy-related ailments. (Wright, R. J.; Cohen, R. T.; Cohen, S.)

Similarly, a 1978 study found that anger can worsen asthma symptoms in children. Kids at a summer camp had been given a course in assertion training. The training was intended to improve interpersonal effectiveness and was thought to promote stress reduction. But researchers found just the opposite: children given this intervention saw their asthma symptoms worsen — possibly because the course required the children to express their anger more. (Hock, R. A.; Rodgers, C. H.; Reddi, C.; Kennard, D. W.)

Many studies have found a link between negative emotions of all types — anger, anxiety, sadness — in asthmatics, and deterioration in lung function. (Ritz, T.; Steptoe, A.)

If your child has asthma, teach them natural ways to de-stress if they start to feel stressed out or angry: counting to 10, praying, taking a few slow, deep breaths, playing with the dog, riding a bike, singing a favorite song, reducing the number of activities in which the child participates, and so on.

Cold, Hot or Rainy Weather Can Produce Asthma Attacks

You may find that your child’s asthma symptoms worsen at certain times of the year, or when the weather changes suddenly.

Rainy weather can cause asthma attacks because mold / fungal spores grow more in wet weather; rain is usually a problem when it combines with wind to increase the number of fungal spores in the air.

Cold, dry air can produce an asthma attack, as it irritates hypersensitive bronchial tubes; the muscles around these then tighten, restricting airflow even more.

Dry, windy weather can be an asthma trigger because it can stir up pollen, mold and dust.

Why hot, humid weather produces attacks in some asthmatics is a matter of continued study; but some animal research has found that bronchial sensory nerves called C-fiber nerves are activated when temperature within the chest reaches a certain high. When these nerves are stimulated, some defense reflexes can occur, including constriction of the bronchial tubes.

In some places, namely cities with heavy traffic and air pollution, heat and sunlight mix with pollutants to produce ground-level ozone, which can also cause asthma attacks.

If you believe that weather plays a role in your child’s asthma symptoms, doctors advise parents to keep a diary of those symptoms and possible triggers, and talk to their child’s doctor about it.

You should limit the time your child spends outside on days that may be a problem. If cold weather is a trigger, your boy or girl should wear a loose-fitting scarf over their nose and mouth on very cold days, and breathe through the nose, to warm and moisturize the air they inhale. Rescue inhalers should be kept close to the body, as warm medication is distributed into the respiratory system more readily.

Keep windows closed at night in rainy weather, or when pollen or mold counts are high. Pollen counts are at their highest in the morning, before 10 am.

Artificial Chemicals in Foods

Artificial food chemicals, including preservatives, colors and flavors, are known to produce asthma attacks in some asthmatics. These additives include: sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, and sodium sulfite. Foods that may contain sulfites include: dried fruits, canned fruits and vegetables, jams, jellies, dried-soup mixes, pizza or pie crusts, flour tortillas, pickles, pickled olives.

Some children with asthma are sensitive to nitrates, which are nearly always present in processed or delicatessen meats (hot dogs; Kosher dogs; bologna; pork or turkey bacon; sliced, canned or whole hams; sliced turkey; canned beef or chicken soups; canned beef chili and other such meats).

Foods can be bought (or grown!) as fresh or organic forms that do not contain any of those or other artificial chemicals. Fresh and organic foods are the healthiest for all of us, but they are a must for children who have allergies and / or asthma.

Colds, Flu or Sinus Infections

These three common illnesses all can produce asthma attacks, as they irritate the bronchi, producing inflammation and increased mucus in the airways. Those two can cause asthmatic reactions.

Teach your children to wash their hands with soap often, and always before eating, after coming home from school or after playing outside. They should also be careful when they’re around people who have the above illnesses. Catching a cold or the flu is as easy as getting the germs on your fingers, then scratching your eyes or putting fingers in mouth or nose. Colds and flu can also be transmitted through airborne droplets by close face-to-face contact with a sick person. Sinus infections are rarely contagious, but they can be.

Acid Reflux and GERD

Acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD, can both trigger asthma attacks by irritating the hypersensitive airways.

Acid reflux happens to most of us on occasion. It is not an illness, and it occurs when normal digestive acids produced by our stomach cells back up through the lower esophagus, producing heartburn, sometimes strong. To avoid acid reflux, all a person may have to do is avoid foods that produce excess stomach acid, such as caffeinated sodas, coffee, chocolate, and for some people, fatty foods.

GERD is when acid reflux happens often or greater amounts of acid come up, or both. It can give a person a strong burning sensation in and below the throat, or chest pain.

Reflux and GERD may be missed as asthma triggers because a person may get them, but have no symptoms. When reflux produces asthma attacks, the person needs to take steps to relieve the reflux, not only the asthma symptoms.

Other Indoor Air Pollutants that Can Cause Asthma Attacks

In addition to the indoor air pollutants mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are many others that can also trigger asthma episodes. Some are more readily apparent than others:

  • Perfumes — even the expensive ones!
  • Hair spray
  • Scented candles, spray air fresheners, plug-in air fresheners, potpourris, incense smoke*
  • Spray cleaners and disinfectants
  • Smoke from fireplaces, wood stoves or kerosene heaters
  • Nitrogen dioxide from gas heaters, stoves and so on

*With respect to home deodorizers, your best bet is to make your own, using plant oils (that your child is not allergic to) and water in a spray bottle. Otherwise, allergy doctors advise that the best thing is to simply open windows to air out your home, and to keep the home clean. If you do regular housecleaning (using natural home-made or Earth-friendly products) and air out your home, you should not have any bad odors.

Artificial air fresheners can not only trigger asthma attacks, but also worsen allergies and asthma symptoms; about 34 percent of people with asthma report health problems with air fresheners. (Source: American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.)

A Few More Facts About Asthma

  • An asthma attack doesn’t necessarily involve wheezing. Sometimes, a cough may be the only sign. If your child coughs at night, when they exercise, or if their cough won’t go away, it could be asthma. Other common asthma symptoms are chest tightness, trouble breathing and wheezing. If your child has any of these, take him or her to the doctor right away.
  • Thankfully, most babies and young children outgrow asthma by the time they start school (though others begin having asthma when they start school). Forty percent of children with asthma still have it as young adults; also, they may start getting asthma attacks again, after not having any for a while. (Source: WebMD.)
  • If your child has exercise-induced asthma, it does not mean that he or she should not exercise. Discuss it with your doctor. Exercise is important because it strengthens the breathing muscles and promotes general good health. Warming up before, and cooling down afterwards with milder exercises will help prevent chest tightness. Outdoor exercise should be avoided when pollen or air pollution counts are high, when the weather is cold or when your child has a respiratory infection such as a cold.
  • Obesity and excess weight increase a person’s risk for asthma, as obesity causes bronchial tubes to narrow. It also produces inflammation throughout the body, including the lungs.

Natural Foods that Will Help Prevent Asthma Attacks

Many parents will want to give their children natural, non-toxic medicines to relieve asthmatic symptoms, rather than always turning to harsh pharmaceutical chemicals for a child whose system is already sensitive to foreign chemicals.

Here are six excellent natural remedies to help reduce or avoid future asthma attacks:

  1. A daily glass of filtered water with the juice of a lemon
  2. Other highly beneficial fruit juices, including orange and cranberry juices, diluted with plenty of water
  3. Eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables every day
  4. Ginger root slices seeped in hot water; add honey, fresh lemon juice, turmeric or cinnamon powder for more powerful immunity-boosting, natural benefits
  5. Cocoa powder in hot water or milk (use all-natural, plain cocoa powder, and not the kind that has chemicals and sugars in it)
  6. By using locally produced honey, you will train your child’s system to not be oversensitive to local pollens

By Cynthia Sanchez. A graduate of the University of Washington, Cynthia has extensive experience writing about health and wellness topics for different media.

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