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In this section: Asthma Triggers | Indoor Triggers | Outdoor Triggers | Occupational Asthma | Pets & Animals

Outdoor Triggers

You may not always have complete control over your exposure to outdoor triggers, but it’s important you recognize the effect that they can have on your asthma.

By making a few adjustments, and by taking your medication as directed, you can breathe easier when you’re outside.

How does pollen impact asthma?

Pollens are a very common allergic trigger. Pollens are generated by trees, grasses and weeds and are carried by the wind on hot, windy days. Airborne pollens are easily inhaled, especially during warm-weather months and trigger asthma symptoms or even an asthma attack.

The exact timing of high-allergen seasons will vary depending on the local climate and weather patterns, but in most regions of Canada it follows this general trend: tree allergens are most common, grass pollens in the summer, and ragweed pollens in the fall.

Reducing your risk:

If you’re allergic to pollen, there are a number of things you can do to stay healthy:

  • Ensure you are taking your medications as prescribed. Your controller medication has a huge impact on your long-term asthma control and can help minimize your reaction to triggers.
  • Always carry your reliever (rescue) inhaler with you, especially during allergy season.
  • Follow your Asthma Action Plan
  • Check the pollen count and stay indoors whenever the it’s high, especially on windy or stormy days.
  • Avoid activities that put you in direct contact with pollens such as mowing the lawn.
  • Use a HEPA-filtered air cleaner (Look for asthma & allergy friendly™ certified products)
  • On days when the pollen count is high, use an air conditioner in your home and car, and keep your windows closed as much as possible.
  • If you usually exercise outdoors, consider exercising inside on days when the pollen count is high.
  • Shower and change your clothing if you’ve been outdoors on a high-pollen-count day.
  • If there are plants in your yard that trigger symptoms, have someone remove them. If you have a garden plant low-allergen plants.
  • Use a good furnace filter and change it regularly.
  • Do not place trees or plants near windows, or near the air-intake of your furnace or air conditioner.
  • Do not hang your laundry out to dry – use a clothes dryer instead.
  • Do not touch plants that you think might be triggers – and if you do, wash your hands immediately afterwards.

Moulds

Mould is a type of fungus that produces spores that float in the air which are easily inhaled and can lead to coughing, sneezing, wheezing and chest tightness. Mould can be an allergic trigger for some people with asthma.

Mould thrives in humid and damp environments. This includes piles of vegetation, stagnant water, and garbage containers.

Ways to reduce your risk:

If you’re sensitive to mould spores, try the following:

  • Have piles of grass removed from your lawn immediately after it’s mowed.
  • When leaves accumulate on your lawn, have them raked and removed.
  • Keep garbage cans clean.
  • Have outdoor containers that hold stagnant water removed.
  • Ensure that eaves-troughs on your house face away from the house.
  • Avoid areas like forests, parks or gardens in the fall when mould spores are more likely to be in the air.

Cold Air

Cold, dry winter air can be an asthma trigger.

Reducing Your Risk:

 If you’re affected by the cold, the following tips can help:

  • Try breathing through your nose. This helps warm the air before it reaches your lungs.
  • Keeping your asthma well controlled all the time by taking your controller medication as prescribed by your doctor
  • Carrying your reliever medication with you at all times. If it’s a particularly cold day and cold air is one of your triggers, consider taking your medication 10-15 minutes before exposure to cold air
  • Follow your Asthma Action Plan
  • Check weather conditions before going out and dress for the weather conditions. Stay warm, wear your hat, gloves, mittens and appropriate clothing for the temperature.
  • If you have to breathe through your mouth, wear a scarf or a special cold-weather mask to help humidify and warm the air you breathe, making it easier on your lungs.
  • Avoid outdoor exercise as much as possible, but especially in cold weather.

Air Pollutants

Air quality has a major impact on asthma management and if pollution and other irritants in the air can trigger asthma symptoms.

Common air pollutants include:

  • Smoke from cigarettes
  • Smog, ozone and other air pollutants
  • Forest fires
  • Wood fires
  • Strong fumes, vapours, or odours
  • Dust and particles in the air
  • Chemicals

There is good evidence that pollution causes the symptoms of many people with asthma to get worse on days when the Air Quality Health Index is high. If you find your symptoms become worse on these days, try to:

  • Reduce the amount of time you spend outside when air-pollution is high.
  • Exercise indoors if you usually exercise outdoors.
  • Turn on the air conditioner in your home and car and keep your windows closed.
  • Take your controller medication as prescribed and carry your reliever medication with you wherever you go, especially on days with poor air quality.
  • Follow your Asthma Action Plan

Smoke

Exposure to smoke of any kind can be harmful and trigger asthma symptoms. Everyone knows that smoking isn’t healthy, but if you have asthma it can be even more dangerous. Smoke is frequently responsible for the onset of asthma symptoms and attacks and must be avoided. Tobacco smoke, even secondhand or third-hand, can trigger asthma symptoms. If you have asthma, do not allow any smoking in your home, your car or anywhere else where you spend a lot of time.

Second-hand smoke is especially harmful for children with asthma because their lungs are still developing. Children exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to experience asthma attacks and to have more severe symptoms. It is also critical that pregnant women avoid smoking and second-hand smoke, as exposure during pregnancy increases the likelihood of children developing asthma.

Third hand smoke (i.e., smoke lingering on clothing or car seats) can also irritate the airways and worsen asthma symptoms.

If you or your child has asthma and you smoke, talk to your doctor about how to quit. If you do not smoke, recognize that second-hand smoke & third hand smoke, should be avoided at all times. If you wish to quit smoking, there are many options available to assist you. Talk to healthcare provider about how nicotine-replacement therapy, counseling and other treatments can help you butt out for good.

Marijuana smoke contains many of the same harmful chemicals as tobacco smoke. Long-term marijuana smoking has been associated with increased coughing, sputum (phlegm) production and wheezing. Smoking marijuana can make existing lung conditions worse. If you have asthma, marijuana smoke can cause an asthma attack leading to hospitalization or even death (American Thoracic Society).

Smog

Smog is a combination of vapours, gases, and particles that react to sunlight to produce ozone near the ground. The particles in the air, along with the ozone, can cause lung damage and breathing problems in people with asthma.

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is a rating system developed by Environment Canada and Health Canada to give Canadians information about air quality and how it might affect their health. Based on the amount of smog and other pollutants in the air on that day, the AQHI provides risk ratings and activity recommendations for both at-risk people (including people with asthma) and the general population. For people with asthma, the AQHI ranges and recommendations are:

  • 1 to 3: Low Risk — Enjoy your usual outdoor activities
  • 4 to 6: Moderate Risk — Consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if you are experiencing symptoms
  • 7 to 10: High Risk — Reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors. Children and the elderly should also take it easy
  • Over 10: Very High Risk — Avoid strenuous activities outdoors.Children and the elderly should also avoid outdoor physical exertion

Learn to assess the effect of AQHI on your breathing — note if you often experience flare ups at certain AQHI levels so you can avoid outdoor activities on days with poor air quality. Although most air pollution comes from sources that are out of your control — like motor vehicles or factories — using gas-powered machines such as lawn mowers can also harm the air quality in your immediate area and trigger an asthma attack, especially on days when the overall pollution is already high.

How to help reduce smog:

  • Take public transit or carpool to reduce car emissions
  • Avoid idling your car
  • Consider fuel efficiency when you buy a car
  •  Avoid using gas-powered machinery like lawn mowers, leaf blowers, or electricity generators

 

Weather Changes

Weather can affect your asthma. Cold weather, hot weather, and severe weather can all have impacts on your asthma and trigger symptoms.

Thunderstorms

Thunderstorms and severe windy weather can be an asthma trigger. After thunderstorms, there are more airborne allergens in the air, such as pollens which may lead to asthma symptoms.

If thunderstorms trigger your asthma you can:

  • Continue taking your controller medication as prescribed by your doctor to keep your asthma under control and decrease your chances of having flare-ups
  • Carry your reliever medication with you at all times, especially if you know there is going to be a thunderstorm or windy weather
  • Follow your Asthma Action Plan
  • Check the weather frequently and stay indoors when you expect severe weather that could impact your asthma
  • If you are using your reliever (rescue) inhaler more than four times per week, or you notice that you are experiencing frequent asthma symptoms speak with your doctor about your treatment plan and asthma management
  • Check the Air Quality Health Index
  • Know what to do in case of an asthma attack

Cold Air

Cold, dry winter air can also make breathing difficult. Breathing through your nose on cold days helps warm and humidify the air before it reaches your lungs. Other steps you can take to manage your asthma in cold weather include:

  • Keeping your asthma well controlled all the time by taking your controller medication as prescribed by your doctor
  • Carrying your reliever medication with you at all times. If it’s a particularly cold day and cold air is one of your triggers, consider taking your medication 10-15 minutes before exposure to cold air
  • Follow your Asthma Action Plan
  • Check weather conditions before going out and dress for the weather conditions. Stay warm, wear your hat, gloves, mittens and appropriate clothing for the temperature.
  • Wear a scarf or face covering around your nose and mouth to help keep the air you breathe warm and moist
  • Avoid outdoor exercise as much as possible, but especially in cold weather.

Hot weather

For some people hot summer weather can trigger asthma symptoms. In the summer there can a lot of pollens and other airborne pollutants in the air. If your asthma symptoms are worse in the summer here are some steps you can take to manage your asthma.

  • Take your medications as prescribed and carry your reliever medication with you at all times. Also speak with your doctor about allergy medications if you have allergic triggers like pollen.
  • Follow your Asthma Action Plan
  • Avoid peak heat times; schedule your activities in the early morning or in the evenings when temperatures are cooler and air quality is better
  • Exercise indoors rather than outside in the heat
  • Check the pollen count and your local Air Quality Health Index before starting your day.

Forest Fires

Wildfires are most common during hot, dry, summer months but can occur at any time of year. Smoke from forest fires can travel long distances and affect people far away from the fire source. Even for people without asthma, smoke and airborne particles from burning trees can irritate the eyes and airways. In people with asthma, these can worsen asthma symptoms and cause potentially life-threatening asthma attacks.

If forest fires are common where you live, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider before fire season starts and make any necessary changes to your Asthma Action Plan and treatment routine.

Some tips to help minimize your risk include: 

  • Being prepared; speak with your doctor about your asthma well in advance of fire season. Have them go over your Asthma Action Plan, your controller medication and  reliever medication and check your inhaler technique
  • Carrying your reliever (rescue) medication with you everywhere you go, just in case symptoms flare-up or smoke triggers an attack
  • Knowing what to do in case of an asthma attack
  • Keeping your asthma managed; if you’re using your rescue inhaler more than 3 times per week your asthma is not properly managed and you should speak with your healthcare provider
  • Monitoring your local Air Quality Health Index
  • Ensuring you have a fire plan in place and putting together an emergency kit that includes extra medications, and supplies in case of evacuation
  • Avoiding smoke as much as possible; this one may seem fairly obvious, but if there is smoke in the air that isn’t directly posing a threat, stay indoors and keep your windows and doors closed; avoid excerising outdoors.

Outdoor Exercise

Asthma symptoms are often triggered by exercise, especially when asthma is not under control. When exercising, there is a tendency to breathe the mouth instead of the nose, which allows unhumidified and unfiltered air into the lungs.

Should I avoid exercise because of my asthma?

Having asthma doesn’t mean that you have to limit your physical activity. If you have limitations in your ability to exercise because of your asthma, your asthma is most likely poorly controlled and you should speak with your healthcare provider to find a treatment plan that is right for you.

Some tips for managing your asthma & exercising include:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider if exercising triggers asthma symptoms
  • Take your controller medication as prescribed for long-term asthma control
  • Carry your reliever medication with you at all times, and take it before you begin to exercise if working out triggers your symptoms
  • Avoid exercising outdoors when it’s cold or extremely hot outside. If you must exercise outdoors aim for the early morning or evening and check the Air Quality Health Index
  • Know the signs of poor asthma control; you can take this short quiz to help find out if your asthma is properly controlled (howmuchistoomuch.ca)
  • Know what to do in an asthma attack
  • Follow your Asthma Action Plan

Asthma & Allergy HelpLine

Do you have questions about asthma? Contact our free helpline service to be connected with a Certified Respiratory Educator who can provide you with personalized support.

Indoor Asthma Triggers

Many people are surprised just how many asthma triggers are within their home. By educating yourself about indoor triggers, you’ll discover simple ways to reduce their levels.

Pets & Animals

Pets and other animals can be allergic asthma triggers. Learn about what you can do to live your pets and manage your asthma. Know your triggers and stay healthy. Learn more about asthma and pets.

Breathe Easy: Triggers

Download a copy of our Breathe Easy Booklet Series on asthma triggers. It covers both allergic and non allergic triggers and useful information for avoiding triggers and managing your asthma. [Click here to download in French]