Is Stress-Induced Asthma A Real Condition?

Updated February 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Asthma attacks have different causes such as an allergic reaction, overexertion, or getting nervous or scared. These attacks can escalate into serious situations requiring an emergency inhaler or immediate medical assistance. A person experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety may also find themselves unable to breathe, but is it simply a symptom of panicking or a true asthma attack? Asthma can have numerous triggers that vary depending upon the individual, but some may wonder if stress-induced asthma is a real condition.

What Is Asthma And What Causes It?

Stress Can Impact Your Health

Asthma is a chronic, serious physical health condition that affects a person's lungs and airways. With asthma, a person’s airways are prone to irritation and inflammation. Any number of "triggers" can cause this inflammation to get worse and set off an asthma attack. When this occurs, the airways restrict even further, and it becomes difficult for the afflicted individual to breathe. 

If not treated immediately, an asthma attack can even be life-threatening. This is why many people with the condition may often carry inhalers with them that contain rapid-release medication to re-open their breathing passages. In general, most people with asthma have common symptoms of chest tightness, wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. These symptoms can be manageable, but once a flare-up (or "attack") occurs, medicine and treatment are mandatory, and action must be taken immediately.

Although doctors are aware of many of the factors to set off the symptoms and attacks associated with asthma, they are unsure of exactly how the condition originates in an individual. It's assumed to be a mixture of genetic factors (a condition that runs in families) as well as environmental conditions (such as prolonged exposure to an environment that may damage the lungs or impair their growth). 

Some people are born with the condition, and it is recognized and diagnosed at a young age. Others also may have asthma in their younger years, yet "grow out of it" by adulthood, or possibly even have it resurface years later. Additionally, an individual could go a decent portion of their life without a single symptom, yet later develop adult-onset asthma (particularly adult women).

Some of the suspected factors that may contribute are environmental. It’s common knowledge that smoking and pregnancy are two things that never need to be mixed, but a child’s lung development can be affected if there is exposure to cigarette smoke during the first few years of life. They may even be affected by firsthand and secondhand smoke while the mother is pregnant. Older individuals who develop asthma may find that it stems from living in an environment with heavy air pollution or with significant allergens present. Or it can potentially be set off due to working in occupations that would place a person at risk of breathing in excessive amounts of dust, irritants, or chemicals.

Genetically speaking, someone with a parent or close relative has a much higher chance of developing asthma compared to the average person (environmental factors excluded, though these will obviously increase their risks). It is also thought that more than one gene is at play in regard to the immune system, and this also contributes to the development of asthma and asthmatic symptoms in a person. 

Asthma is also more common in those with African-American and Puerto Rican backgrounds compared to other races, and gender plays a part as well. In younger children, males are more likely to have this condition, yet the prevalence in the teen years and adult ages leans more towards females.

Some other health conditions may also influence a person's likelihood to develop asthma, and these include obesity (which causes plenty of health and breathing problems on its own), recurrent respiratory infections during childhood, and allergies. Asthma itself can be a sign of an allergic reaction, and a person's risk level for it is significantly higher depending on how many different things they are allergic to.

There is no definite way to prevent a person from having asthma, especially with no specific cause confirmed. There is also no type of screening available for someone potentially at risk. Displaying symptoms and providing your doctor with this information after symptoms have already shown up are the sole way to receive confirmation and a proper diagnosis. The only way to approach this often-lifelong condition is by managing symptoms, utilizing medications (especially in the case of emergencies), and trying to avoid potential triggers.

What Factors Can Trigger Asthma?

The triggers for asthma may vary depending upon the individual, but there are a number of common factors that can play a part. Some people may have their condition managed well enough to rarely ever have symptoms aside from an occasional flare-up, while others may have such regular or severe symptoms that it impacts their quality of life.

Irritants and allergens are some of the most common triggers for those with asthma. Cigarette smoke bothers even those without the condition, so it can further irritate the airways of someone who already struggles with this issue on a regular basis. Allergens also play a part by causing allergic reactions within a person's body. This often increases the level of inflammation present and can strongly impact someone with asthma. Dust, pollen, and harsh chemicals found in certain occupations or in certain cleaning supplies can also worsen symptoms when inhaled.

Respiratory infections cause inflammation in a person's sinuses, nasal cavities, chest, and lungs. For someone dealing with asthma, this can greatly impact their condition and cause a significant worsening of their symptoms and possibly flare-ups.

A  less obvious trigger for asthmatic individuals is cold air. When a person breathes in cold air, it is significantly drier and causes the airways in that individual to also dry out, which can cause irritation. It's why the average person may find themselves coughing during the winter months of the year. This can be problematic for someone whose airways are already irritated to begin with.

Though only a very small percentage of people are affected, even food additives and preservatives may be a risk factor for triggering symptoms in those with asthma. Very few are diagnosed with allergies to these common ingredients in processed food, but they may still exhibit signs of sensitivity to these various chemicals. For some with asthma, avoiding these ingredients may help reduce the risks of a flare-up or the frequency of symptoms.

Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction is a variation of asthma commonly referred to as "exercise-induced asthma." This type occurs when asthmatic symptoms flare up during strenuous physical activity or exercises. It can cause the same asthma symptoms as others when exposed to the other various triggers. This may also be worsened by obesity and environmental conditions. There is also a risk for asthma-related reactions to certain medications including beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, and pain relieving medications (such as aspirin and NSAIDS).

Can Stress Cause Asthma?

Stress may not be an initial cause of asthma, but stress-induced asthma is indeed a real condition. The physical effects of stress can cause all types of unpleasant reactions within the human body, and one of these is increased inflammation. This effect of stress can lead to a worsening of asthma symptoms and a potential flare-up when a person's body begins to feel the effects of constant strain.

Some of the negative effects of stress include heart trouble, anxiety, panic attacks, and more. Heart-related symptoms (such as chest tightness) may mimic similar symptoms to an asthma attack along with an increased breathing rate and hyperventilation from anxiety and panic. This can worsen a person's stress level and further increase their anxiety, leading to a true panic attack that may be almost indistinguishable from an asthma attack. 

The symptoms of a panic attack and an asthma attack are so similar that an individual caught in the midst of either  may not be able to tell the difference. Doctors can provide a peak flow meter for asthma patients for them to check their airflow rates and be able to determine when to safely use their rescue medications in situations such as these.

Stress is capable of worsening existing mental and physical health concerns, including asthma symptoms. The lowering of one's immune system as well as the obesity risks related to chronically high stress levels contributes to multiple triggers.

Treatment For Asthma

Asthma is not a curable condition. For some, it may fade or fully disappear, yet potentially resurface later on. The main focus of asthma treatment is managing symptoms and reducing long-term damage.

People with asthma often have quick-acting, emergency medications to be inhaled during asthma attacks. These medications can rapidly reduce symptoms and prevent life-threatening situations. Individuals may also remain on long-term maintenance medications (such as inhaled corticosteroids and bronchodilators) as well as allergy medications to reduce daily symptoms and prevent any attacks. 

Symptoms and flare-ups may also be reduced by making lifestyle-related changes such as managing stress levels, avoiding allergens and individual triggers, and maintaining a clean environment and living space to avoid dust and other potential allergens.

Stress Can Impact Your Health


If you have asthma or suspect your health concerns may be attributed to this condition, it's best to consult with a trusted physician to receive a proper diagnosis. If stress or anxiety appears to be the root cause of worsening symptoms, though, you may want to speak to a mental health professional as well. 

If stress is having an impact on your physical health, your hectic schedule may not allow you to see a therapist in person. This is where online therapy may be a more viable form of treatment. This internet-based counseling can be accessed from the comfort of your home. Plus, you can save time by skipping the commute. 

Online therapy has been thoroughly researched, and the results are promising. A recent study showed that various forms of online therapy can have positive effects on an individual’s perceived level of stress, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance commitment therapy (ACT).

BetterHelp has resources and trained professionals available from the comfort of your home and on any available schedule to help you address your psychological and emotional concerns and learn to cope with the stresses and anxiety in your daily life. Get started by answering a few quick questions.

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