Skip to main content
Skip to page content
Skip Navigation LinksPennsylvania Department of Health > My Health > Environmental Health > Health Tracking Program > Asthma


Asthma and the Environment

The information included here provides an overview of the epidemiology of asthma and the factors that may be contributing to its development, morbidity and mortality. By morbidity we mean the state of being diseased or unhealthy within a population. Mortality refers to the incidence of death or the number of deaths in a population. Identifying those populations at increased risk for developing asthma or incurring increased morbidity and mortality from the disease can provide important information needed to develop and use effective interventions.

The World Health Organization defines asthma as a condition that attacks all age groups but often starts in childhood. It is characterized by recurrent attacks of breathlessness and wheezing which vary in severity and frequency from person to person. In an individual, they may occur from hour to hour and day to day.
This condition is due to inflammation of the air passages in the lungs and affects the sensitivity of the nerve endings in the airways so they become easily irritated. In an attack or episode, the lining of the passages swell causing the airways to narrow and reducing the flow of air in and out of the lungs.
Symptoms of asthma often occur because a person is exposed to an asthma trigger. A trigger is any
thing or condition that causes inflammation in the airways. Your personal triggers can be very different
from those of another person with asthma. But in every case, it’s important to avoid your triggers
in order to keep airway inflammation to a minimum and reduce the symptoms.
The most common triggers for asthma include:     
      -  Pollen
      -  Dander (skin flakes shed from animals)
      -  Mice, rats and cockroaches
      -  Dust mites
      -  Mold
      -  Cigarette smoke
      -  Wood smoke, strong odors and sprays
      -  Exercise or sports
      -  Certain medications and foods
      -  Infections
      -  Stress
      -  Pesticides 
      -  Air pollutants
Two key air pollutants are ozone, which is found in smog, and particulate matter which is found in
haze, smoke and dust. Each person with asthma can react differently to a trigger. Identifying these
triggers in an individual is a major step towards learning how to prevent an asthma attack or episode. 

Asthma is not curable but it is manageable. The majority of problems associated with asthma, including hospitalization, are preventable if asthma is managed according to established guidelines. These include control of exposure to conditions that trigger symptoms, adequate medication management, continual monitoring of the disease and patient education in asthma care.
The most effective way of preventing asthma at home are minimizing dust, cleaning up mold, eliminating irritants and controlling pet dander.
Here are steps you can take to help protect your health from air pollution.
      -  Get to know how sensitive you are to air pollution.
      -  Know when and where air pollution may be bad.
      -  Plan activities when and where pollution levels are lower.
      -  Change your activity level.
      -  Listen to your body.
      -  Keep your quick-relief medicine on hand when you’re active outdoors.     
      -  Consult your health care provider.
Get up-to-date information about your local air quality. Sometimes you can tell that the air is polluted—for example, on a smoggy or hazy day-- but often you can’t.  You can often find air quality forecasts and reports on local TV or radio. These reports use the Air Quality Index, or AQI, a simple color scale, to tell you how clean or polluted the air is. You can use the AQI to plan your activities each day to help reduce your asthma symptoms.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Tracking Network includes the annual numbers and rates of asthma hospitalizations, by age, gender, race/ethnicity and geography.    
Related Links