Pathophysiology of Asthma: Reasons, Triggers, and Ways to Ease Symptoms Naturally

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Is it difficult for you to exercise outdoors in winter without triggering an asthma flare-up? 

Do you struggle with wheezing and chest tightness on a humid day? 

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with asthma, you may be wondering if it’s true that extreme weather can trigger flare-ups.

In this article, we explore the pathophysiology of asthma and the impact that weather and seasonal changes have on this condition. You’ll also learn how to control asthma flare-ups by understanding your triggers and implementing lifestyle strategies.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic pulmonary disease that causes narrowing of your airways – or bronchi – and makes it difficult to breathe.

The pathophysiology of asthma involves an overactive immune system that reacts to harmless environmental stimuli. In response to these stimuli, immune cells release inflammatory chemicals. This causes the muscles surrounding your bronchi to contract, making it difficult for air to enter and leave your lungs.

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Your body also ramps up mucus production in response to the inflammation, creating another airway obstruction.

The inability to breathe is one of the harshest manifestations of an asthma attack. Other symptoms include:

  • Severe wheezing
  • Coughing that doesn’t stop
  • Gasping for air
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness and pain
  • Skin paleness
  • Anxiety and panic attacks 
  • Fatigue 

However, symptoms vary from person to person, and not every person with asthma experiences severe or frequent attacks.

Asthma triggers 

There are two forms of asthma:

  1. Atopic (allergic) asthma
  2. Nonallergic or environmentally induced asthma

Understanding your triggers is the first step in managing your symptoms.

Is asthma an autoimmune disease?

While your immune system plays a significant role in this condition, asthma is not an autoimmune disease.

With autoimmune diseases, the immune system produces antibodies that attack your own tissues. With asthma, your immune system mounts an inflammatory reaction in your airways in response to external irritants.

However, autoimmune diseases and asthma have some of the same triggers, like extreme weather and stress.

Are allergies and asthma connected? 

Asthma is common in both children and adults. Research also shows that if one of your parents or grandparents has asthma, you have an increased risk of developing asthma in childhood.

There is also a strong genetic link between allergies and asthma. This is due to a common gene that predisposes you to allergen-sensitivity disorders like eczema, asthma, atopic dermatitis, food allergies, and hay fever.

Can weather trigger asthma?

Yes! Extreme weather and changing seasons are common asthma triggers. If you have inflamed airways, you’re more likely to be sensitive to the quality, temperature, and humidity of the air you inhale.

A woman breathing flower pollen, an asthma trigger

Seasonal asthma: Does asthma worsen during summer or winter? 

People with asthma typically struggle with symptoms more in winter, when they’re inhaling cold and dry air. Plus, indoor air quality may be poor during winter due to indoor fires, heating, and poor ventilation.

However, high humidity, summer heatwaves, and thunderstorms can all trigger and aggravate asthma.

Here are some of the weather conditions that trigger seasonal asthma:

Cold-induced asthma

Do you experience more chest tightness and wheezing in the winter?

People with seasonal asthma often struggle with cold-induced asthma. Cold air is usually dry, which can cause an asthma flare-up by dehydrating and irritating the bronchi.

Exercising outdoors on a cold day can also be dangerous. During exercise, you inhale large amounts of cold air through the mouth. This can be a shock to the respiratory system and cause bronchospasms.

Heat-induced asthma

Warm, still summer days often bring a respite for people with asthma living in mild climates. However, heat and high humidity can trigger heat-induced seasonal asthma in some people. In fact, high temperatures have been linked to more asthma-related hospital visits.

Humidity and asthma

When humidity is high, the air can feel heavy, dense, and suffocating. Breathing in humid air may quickly constrict the airways and worsen asthma attacks. 

In addition, breathing humid air is more likely to trigger asthma because it holds on to pollen, mold, dust, and environmental pollutants more easily.

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Increased pollen count and asthma

Tiny pollen particles are a trigger for seasonal asthma. Asthma symptoms commonly peak during the spring, when pollen counts are high.

Interestingly, a phenomenon called “thunderstorm asthma” occurs during pollen season. During a thunderstorm, the combination of humidity, electrical charge, rain, and change in air pressure breaks pollen grains into small particles. They then get dispersed in the air and are easily inhaled.

Tip: Try to become more aware of breathing through your nose if possible. The nose has specialized hairs that trap allergens and warm the air as it enters your airways.

Does asthma go away? 8 Ways to ease symptoms

Now that you know about the common triggers for asthma, you may be wondering where to go from here. Can asthma go away with the correct treatment?

Asthma is a chronic illness. However, you can manage symptoms – and even eliminate them – by being consistent with your medication, avoiding triggers, and making lifestyle changes. 

Here are 7 natural tips to help you live a symptom-free life:

1. Go for coffee

If you’re a coffee-lover, you’ll be happy to hear that drinking coffee lowers your chances of having an asthma attack.

In addition to supporting focus and performance, research shows that caffeine has bronchodilatory properties, meaning it can relax and widen your airways. For those with mild asthma, having coffee before a stressful event, workout, or when the pollen count is high may reduce symptoms. 

2. Visit the sauna

Sauna bathing may be therapeutic for people with respiratory diseases like asthma,9 especially if you’re sensitive to cold, dry air. Inhaling warm sauna air may relax your airways and improve asthma and lung function.

Plus, taking time out in the sauna for self-care helps to reduce stress – one of the biggest asthma triggers. If your asthma gets aggravated by humidity, dry heat saunas or infrared saunas are better options.

3. Cook with spices like garlic, ginger, and turmeric 

In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, ginger, garlic, and turmeric are well-known remedies for asthma and other respiratory conditions. These flavorful spices are rich in antioxidants, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory compounds that may reduce airway obstruction.10 Plus, these spices are believed to protect you during cold and flu season.

Try using them to make teas or adding them to meals for extra flavor. They are not a replacement for your medication but may be able to offer additional support.

4. Relieve stress with meditation

When you’re under stress, your body releases a stress hormone called adrenaline. Adrenaline speeds up your breathing and causes your muscles to tense to prepare you to handle a threat. This is terrible for asthmatics.

Unfortunately, many of us are under chronic stress due to work, family, financial, and relationship pressures. Learning to manage stress through meditation can be a valuable way to reduce asthma flare-ups. 

There are apps available with guided meditations of various lengths. Plus, you can incorporate slow belly breathing and visualization into meditation to enhance your relaxation response.

A man working outdoors with asthma symptoms

5. Exercise more

If you have asthma, exercise might make you nervous. But regular physical activity is essential for healthy lungs, strong immunity, weight management, and stress reduction. 

Building your fitness slowly can help you manage your asthma. Opt for moderate-intensity exercises like walking, cycling, swimming, or yoga.

Take note: Always keep your rescue inhaler with you, and don’t exercise outdoors if the air is very cold or humid. If you’re unsure, ask your asthma doctor for guidance.  

6. Eat more antioxidants

A diet rich in antioxidant compounds, like vitamins A, C, E, lutein, and lycopene, may help to calm your overactive immune system and soothe inflammation.

Try including a selection of antioxidant-rich foods in your diet every day, including:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Berries
  • Tomatoes
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Leafy green vegetables 
  • Red and yellow peppers
  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Nuts and seeds

Not only can this help ease asthma, but it may also reduce your risk of other chronic conditions.

7. Enjoy the sunlight

Vitamin D is an anti-inflammatory nutrient produced when sunlight hits your skin. It’s known as “the sunshine vitamin.”

Pretty cool, right?

Vitamin D is crucial for a balanced immune system, and research suggests that optimal levels may reduce the frequency of asthma attacks.

Unfortunately, because of the amount of time we spend indoors every day, vitamin D deficiency is widespread.

The best way to increase vitamin D levels is to spend 15 minutes in direct sunlight each day or as often as possible. Be sure to wear sunscreen! Also, if you struggle with heat-induced asthma or live in a cold climate, it may be safer to boost your levels with a daily supplement. You can also eat more vitamin D foods like fatty fish, eggs, liver, and fortified dairy products.

8. Protect yourself from pollen

Since pollen is a common asthma trigger, check the forecast by WeatherWell every day and try the following when the pollen level in your area is high:

  • Wear a face mask and pollen-protective glasses when you go outside.
  • Change your clothes and wash your face and hands when returning home.
  • Use nasal spray containing salt water to remove allergens.
  • Avoid being around pets that spend time outdoors.
  • Take any prescribed allergy medications.

Final thoughts 

Asthma is a serious respiratory condition that can flare up due to various environmental factors, including seasonal changes and extreme weather conditions.

Luckily, many people with asthma can manage their symptoms and live healthy, normal lives. In addition to using the lifestyle tips mentioned in this article, we suggest that you keep tabs on the WeatherWell forecast for your area. Being prepared for weather changes can help you avoid seasonal asthma flare-ups.

If your asthma symptoms worsen, please seek medical attention. You may require further testing or a change in medication.

June 16, 2022