Are There Certain Foods That Can Trigger An Asthma Attack?

Avoiding an asthma attack for yourself or a loved one can be tricky. You might think you know all the triggers and then be met with the one you weren’t aware of — food.

There are cases where food can trigger an asthma attack, though it is rare for food allergens to cause isolated asthma without other symptoms. In these cases, it can be different foods or even the additives in the food that cause an asthma attack. 

Below is a guide to help you understand the different types of foods that can be triggering and how to watch for signs of food causing these attacks. Once you know how the food triggers these attacks, you can be better prepared to prevent or take action if one creeps up unexpectedly. 

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What causes asthma?

Asthma is caused by inflamed lungs, leading to different respiratory symptoms and making breathing a chore. The difficulty breathing caused by the narrowing of airways is further exacerbated by excess amounts of mucus that build up in the airways. When this happens, you may experience difficulty breathing and need to clear out these passageways.

While the cause of asthma is multifactorial, we know that one of the significant factors is environmental triggers. It’s important that you know what your triggers are. 

Those with asthma¹ are typically given medication through an inhaler that is prescribed for them. This inhaler helps minimize the inflammation and narrowing of the airways, which makes breathing easier, preventing chronic symptoms from getting worse and averting an attack.

If you are starting to feel an asthma attack, you should use your inhaler immediately for the best protection. 

How do asthma attacks happen?

When these asthma attacks happen, it is due to sudden narrowing of the airways. You or your loved one may struggle to breathe, and panic will set in. These attacks can happen when exposed to a trigger or if you have not been compliant with your preventative medications. Other times, asthma attacks come on quickly due to different triggers.

Common triggers of asthma attacks include:

  • Dander from pets or pests in the home

  • Dust and mold

  • Smoke and factory pollution outdoors

  • Smoke from cigarettes

These are some of the most common triggers that can affect you if you have asthma. Some triggers, such as food and the ingredients added to processed food, can also trigger an attack unexpectedly, although this is relatively rare. You may not be aware that certain triggers will impact your asthma until you come into contact with them. 

Food and ingredients that can trigger asthma

Knowing that food can trigger an asthma attack can be scary and is something you need to be acutely aware of when you are cooking, eating out, or attending a function with food at someone's home. The food that may trigger you may not be the exact trigger for another asthmatic person.

These foods are often common allergens, and someone asthmatic may have a stronger reaction to them, resulting in an asthma attack.

Foods that can affect asthma

Many food allergies are related to foods that can affect asthma. The following list shows foods commonly known to trigger asthma attacks in those that are allergic to them: 

  1. Nuts (including tree nuts and peanuts)

  2. Shellfish (Shrimp, Crab, etc.)

  3. Soy

  4. Eggs or Milk

  5. Wheat or Bread products

If you are allergic to any of the above foods and are asthmatic, then you must avoid those foods. Sometimes an allergy test is done, which may classify allergies as mild. However, even those with milder allergies may still have their asthma triggered by exposure to allergens.

Foods that use one or more of these products are usually listed on the boxes and ingredient lists, so you should always check the packaging.

Preservatives and additives that affect asthma

Not only do those with asthma have to worry about the foods they are coming into contact with, but the preservatives used to dry out fruits and vegetables or even make pickled foods can trigger an asthma attack. Preservatives like sulfites or sulfite-containing foods and sodium benzoate are some allergens that can affect asthma.

Of note, sulfites are the only food additive compounds that have been sufficiently proven to provoke asthma symptoms in asthmatics. While you may not think of those as allergens, you need to double-check the ingredients in your processed foods before you purchase them and start cooking. 

Sulfites

One of the leading preservatives that have been used for centuries is sulfites. Sulfites can prolong the shelf-life of certain foods or prevent them from browning. They are added to food or drink to chemically change their properties when they are dried out or bottled.

Sulfites can preserve both fruits and vegetables so that they can last for months longer than if they were fresh. 

Below are some of the most common sulfites in the products you purchase: 

  • Sodium sulfite

  • Sulfur dioxide

  • Sodium bisulfite

  • Sodium potassium sulfite

  • Sodium metabisulfite

These are found in many foods, drinks, and even OTC medications that are taken pretty often, with the highest levels in commercially prepared dried fruit such as apricots and wines. These different sulfites are a minimal risk for most of the population.

However, as much as 5% of asthmatics may experience an exacerbation of their symptomatology when exposed to sulfites.

Asthmatics who enjoy dried foods like fruits and vegetables as a relatively healthy snack can be exposed to these different sulfites. Everything from pickles to canned soups carries one or more of these ingredients across most brands. When purchasing packaged foods for yourself or a loved one with asthma, you should review the ingredient list and check for sulfites. 

Why do these foods trigger asthma?

Like any food allergy or sensitivity, asthmatic reactions following exposure to food are mainly driven by IgE antibodies. That asthmatic reaction is typically rapid in onset, from minutes up to an hour or so following ingestion. Usually, allergy reactions occur sooner rather than later. 

Symptoms of an asthma attack caused by food

If you have asthma and you start to have an asthma attack triggered by food or sulfites, you will need to watch out for the symptoms below: 

  • Intense coughing

  • Hives across your body

  • Feeling as though you cannot catch your breath

  • Mouth and throat have become very itchy and irritated

While some of these can be symptoms of asthma in general, these symptoms begin shortly after you start eating. When the first symptom starts, you need to stop chewing immediately, spitting out any food you may have in your mouth. 

If this is your first attack, you need to use your rescue inhaler and identify what you ate when the asthma attack happened. Depending on the severity of the asthma attack, medical assistance may be required. 

How do I avoid a food trigger?

Once you have experienced an asthma attack from a particular food or preservative, you must go on to ensure you don’t knowingly eat anything with that ingredient. If it’s a common food, like peanuts, you must avoid them and any food containing them, such as peanut butter and food cooked in peanut oil.

Maybe your doctor discovered the food allergy before the asthma was found. If this sounds familiar, you can expect that having that food nearby could trigger an unwanted asthma attack, especially while cooking, as allergens can be aerosolized by steam, vapors, or sprays.

You will need to let anyone you are living with or who may be preparing meals for you know about your condition and treat the trigger like a possible deadly allergy. Just because other asthmatics can have that particular food doesn't mean you should. 

Does it matter if the trigger is an allergy?

The fact that your airways have any reaction to the food that triggers your asthma attack means that you should avoid it. When your airways become constricted, and panic starts to set in, an asthma attack may occur, which can be fatal in extreme cases.

Remember that allergies can be severe in general, causing symptoms in the airways and other areas of the body, such as hives or a swollen throat. Also, sometimes it can only take a little bit of food to onset an allergic reaction, which can cause an asthma attack on top of other issues. 

Should I carry an EpiPen with me?

If you have suffered from an asthma attack triggered by a food allergy, then you should have your EpiPen with you to minimize the chances of fatal anaphylaxis just in case you accidentally consume these foods again. If you only experienced an asthma attack and allergic reaction once, it is probable that you were in a situation where all of the ingredients were not disclosed.

Your doctor will most likely prescribe at least two epinephrine auto-injectors to keep on you regularly. 

How long will an asthma attack last?

If you are proactive when the signs and symptoms start, you can get treatment early, and the asthma attack can subside in just a few minutes to hours. Most asthma attacks are resolved in a few hours, but if they are not treated, they can be relentless for a longer period and turn fatal. This is why it is critical to know the triggers for your asthmatic loved one. 

The lowdown

Whether it is a food or food additive that triggers asthma in asthmatics, a specific diet may be the right plan to ensure you do not get exposed to that trigger. If your trigger is sulfites, you should avoid most processed foods.

Unless your asthma is well controlled, you will most likely be prone to attacks, so you must be careful of the possible triggers that affect you personally. If you have experienced food as a trigger recently, you know what you should avoid and be prepared to disclose this information to cooks and review any purchased foods.

Food triggers can be just as impactful as other triggers that asthmatics are exposed to regularly. To be fully protected in an unexpected asthma attack triggered by food, you must always have your rescue inhaler on you.

  1. Diet and asthma: Is it time to adapt our message? (2017)

Other Sources:

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