Asthma Risk Factors
Though doctors don’t know what causes asthma, they do know what factors put you at risk. For instance, having a family history of asthma is the biggest one.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that causes the tubes in your lungs to constrict, making it difficult to breathe. It can take the form of coughing, wheezing, tightness in your chest, and shortness of breath.
Asthma affects people of every age, but it most often begins in childhood. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 6 percent of children and 8 percent of adults in the United States suffer from asthma. That’s more than 25 million people.
Asthma comes at a high price. It costs about $50 billion per year in medical treatment, missed work or school days, and early deaths.
While researchers know that asthma is an allergic condition that triggers inflammation in the airways, they still don’t know exactly what causes it. There are known risk factors, however, that indicate whether you or your child are likely to develop this potentially dangerous disease.
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Health history and asthma risk factors
Having a family history of asthma is one of the strongest predictors that you may develop it yourself, either as a child or an adult. According to the American Lung Association, you are three to six times more likely to suffer from asthma if you have an asthmatic parent than if you have no family history of the disease.
One study found that having a mother with asthma corresponded to a higher likelihood of developing the condition than having an asthmatic father, while having two asthmatic parents corresponded to the greatest likelihood of a child developing the disease.
A history of respiratory illnesses during childhood, particularly viral infections in the lungs, also corresponds to a stronger risk of asthma. Because asthma is an allergic condition, allergies — or a family history of allergies — also puts you at risk. One study of young adults with asthma found that 61 percent of participants also had positive allergy skin tests.
A paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that while genetics and medical history are high risk factors, a combination of health and environmental factors is an even stronger predictor of whether you are likely to suffer from asthma.
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Environmental risk factors for asthma
Both adults and children are more likely to develop asthma if they are exposed to certain environmental irritants. They can include toxic chemicals at work sites, air pollution, allergens like pollen or mold, and tobacco smoke. Multiple studies have concluded that children are more likely to develop asthma — as well as a variety of other health problems — if their mothers smoke during pregnancy.
Smoking is not the only prenatal factor that corresponds to an increased risk. One study found that children were two to three times more likely to develop allergic conditions, including asthma, if they were delivered by emergency cesarean section. The study’s authors speculated the risk was due to a combination of maternal stress and the effect cesarean delivery has on an infant’s intestinal bacteria and immune system.
Poverty and asthma risk factors
Socioeconomic status is also a risk factor for asthma.
According to the CDC, more than 10 percent of those living below the federal poverty threshold suffer from asthma, the largest percentage of any single socioeconomic group in the United States. It is not, however, because poverty causes asthma, but because poverty corresponds to a greater likelihood of other risk factors.
One risk factor is living in an urban setting, which causes greater exposure to air pollution and environmental chemicals. Another is obesity. A study conducted in Detroit found that obesity corresponded to an increased likelihood of asthma, especially among women.
Studies show that both poor and non-poor participants living in cities or suffering from obesity are at risk for asthma. They also concluded, however, that poor participants were more likely to live in urban settings and be obese than people in higher income brackets, resulting in a greater percentage of those living in poverty suffering from asthma.
Though scientists have discovered many of the risk factors for asthma, there is still no known cure or exact way of predicting who will develop the disease. Many treatments, however, help both children and adults manage their conditions and continue living healthy, active lives.
If you suspect that you, or your child, are at risk for developing asthma, talk to a doctor about how to spot and manage the symptoms.
May 03, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN