Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA)

What Makes You Wheezy?

Published February - 5 - 2009 Print This Post

toxic-cleanFrom colds to cold air, there’s a lot beyond allergies that could be causing your asthma symptoms. Sometimes it takes a little investigative work to discover patterns to symptoms. So armed with your Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, let’s dust surfaces and find your asthma thumbprint.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) outlines five classifications of asthma:

  • Allergic Asthma – symptoms are stimulated primarily by allergens like pollen, dust mites and pet dander among many others
  • Non-Allergic Asthma – set off by infections, irritants, certain medications or related conditions like reflux
  • Exercise-Induced Asthma – symptoms occur during or after vigorous physical exercise
  • Occupational Asthma – related to inhaling irritants or harmful substances at work
  • Nocturnal Asthma – can be caused by allergens commonly found in bedrooms (like dust mites); allergen or irritant exposures that happened earlier in the day; cyclical hormonal changes that occur during sleep cycles; or gastroesophageal reflux that causes acid and/or microscopic particles from the stomach to leak backward into the airways


Most people with asthma fall into more than one category, but that’s not the end of the clue trail. Asthma symptoms can also be caused by irritants like perfumes or cold air, even laughter or emotional upset. You aren’t allergic to these things, but an allergy to something else may cause low levels of inflammation in your airways that leads to symptoms when your lungs are exposed to additional insults (such as fumes or rapid breathing during laughing or emotional upsets).

It may also be difficult to separate symptoms of asthma from those caused by carrying around too much weight and not getting enough exercise – or did poorly controlled asthma lead to sedentary living and weight gain? It’s the subject of great debate in the medical community.


Sleuthing Tools

Ready to track down what’s provoking asthma symptoms? Start with the clues provided in the “Types of Asthma” chart below – general categories of asthma and some common allergens, irritants and activities that can set off asthma symptoms. Circle the ones you know or suspect may be problematic. Underline those you are exposed to but haven’t noticed directly cause asthma symptoms. Your physician will find this information very helpful.

Track your symptoms daily using AANMA’s AsthmaTracker®. Start today and continue until your symptoms have been completely resolved and well managed for at least three months. People who use this tool or a similarly detailed system for tracking symptoms and responses to medications will begin to see patterns emerge faster than those who trust their memories when asked to retrieve important information. Of course, you’ll need to share the information with a physician and/or nurse educator who can adapt your written treatment plan accordingly.

You don’t need to do all this sleuthing by yourself. There’s plenty of help available through AANMA’s Helpline by calling 800.878.4403 or e-mailing AANMAHelpline@ And a board-certified allergist can help uncover clues to your unique asthma thumbprint. Visit and for online allergist locators.

Type of Asthma Definition Triggers Prevalence
Allergic Asthma
  • Characterized by airway obstruction associated with allergies and triggered by substances called allergens.
  • Airborne pollens
  • Molds
  • Animal dander
  • House dust mites
  • Cockroach droppings
  • Allergic asthma accounts for nearly 60% of all asthma cases.
Non-Allergic Asthma
  • Caused by viral infections, certain medications or irritants found in the air that aggravate the nose and airways.
  • Airborne particles (e.g., coal, chalk dust)
  • Air pollutant (e.g., tobacco smoke, wood smoke)
  • Strong odors or sprays (e.g., perfumes, household cleaners, cooking fumes, paints or varnishes)
  • Viral infection (e.g., colds, viral pneumonia, sinusitis, nasal polyps)
  • Aspirin-sensitivity
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • About one-third of all asthma sufferers have non-allergic asthma.
Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA)
  • Triggered by vigorous physical activity. Symptoms of EIA occur to varying degrees in a majority of asthma sufferers and are likely to be triggered as a result of breathing cold, dry air while exercising.
  • Breathing airborne pollens during exercise
  • Breathing air pollutants during exercise
  • Exercising with viral respiratory tract infections
  • Exercising in cold, dry air
  • Exercise can cause
    symptoms in up to 80% of people with asthma.
  • 35-40% of people with seasonal allergies also have EIA and symptoms worsen during the spring and fall.
Occupational Asthma
  • This type of asthma
    is directly related to
    inhaling irritants and other potentially harmful substances found in the workplace.
  • Fumes
  • Chemicals
  • Gases
  • Resins
  • Metals
  • Dusts and vapors
  • Insecticides
  • As many as 15% of all asthma cases in the U.S. have work-related causes.
  • Occupational asthma is the most prevalent work-related lung disease in developed countries.
Nocturnal Asthma
  • Also known as sleep-related asthma, this type of asthma occurs when
    a person is sleeping, regardless of the time of day. However, symptoms worsen between midnight and 4 a.m.
  • Temperature changes in the body
  • Allergen exposure in the bedroom
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Low circulation of adrenal glandhormones
  • Delayed reactions to allergens exposed to during the day
  • Nocturnal asthma occurs in as many as 75% of asthma patients.

Source: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology,

First published: The MA Report, October 2007
Updated: February 2009