Asthma rates continue to grow around the world. In the US, about 1 out of every 10 children now has the potentially life threatening condition. Although there are still many mysteries surrounding the disease, it’s long been known that physical factors such as pollen, dust, pet dander, pollution, smoke, and mold can both trigger the condition and contribute to its development. But new research suggests that psychological factors such as stress, neighborhood violence, and abuse can be just as influential in asthma development.

How? Asthma occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to irritants. When children are exposed to too much stress for too long, their adrenal glands overproduce the chemicals cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals shift the body’s immune system into overdrive, fueling numerous health issues including asthma.

A recent study showed that kids who face one traumatic event at home (divorce, death of a parent, abuse, etc) are 28% more likely to develop asthma. Kids who face four traumatic events are 73% more likely to develop asthma. This has hit children especially hard in cities like Detroit where violence is high and 25% of children under 6 live in homes with no working adult.

“You can’t ignore it anymore,” said Dr. Rosalind Wright of Kravis Children’s Hospital. “The data is there that says psychological stress is a factor, just like these other factors.”

Researchers are now looking into counseling as a way to help children better cope with their stress and thereby better manage their asthma.