Healthy Home & Workspace

Prevent Allergies and Asthma Attacks at Home

If someone in your family has allergies or asthma, make your home a healthier place by getting rid of the things that can cause allergy symptoms or an asthma attack.

What can cause allergy symptoms or an asthma attack?

Things that can cause allergy symptoms are called allergens. Asthma attacks can be caused by irritants (things that can irritate the lungs) or allergens. Different people will react to different allergens and irritants.

Many substances can aggravate allergies or increase the severity of asthma symptoms in individuals who are sensitive to these allergens or irritants.

Asthma is one of our nation's most common chronic health conditions. Many substances can aggravate allergies or increase the severity of asthma symptoms in individuals who are sensitive to these allergens or irritants.

Air Pollution

Even though you can’t see it, the air you breathe can affect your health. Polluted air can cause difficulty breathing, flare-ups of allergy or asthma, and other lung problems. Long-term exposure to air pollution can raise the risk of other diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

Some people think of air pollution as something that’s found mainly outside. They may picture cars idling or power plants with smoke stacks. But air pollution can also occur inside—in homes, offices, or even schools.

Whether outdoors or indoors, the effects of air pollution are most obvious for those who already have difficulty breathing. All people are likely susceptible to the adverse effects of air pollution. But people who have chronic lung diseases such as asthma are more susceptible.

Air pollution is a mixture of natural and man-made substances in the air we breathe.  It is typically separated into two categories: outdoor air pollution and indoor air pollution.

Outdoor air pollution involves exposures that take place outside of the built environment.  Several different types of pollutants can affect your health. When the weather is warm, an invisible gas called ozone can make it harder for some people to breathe. This gas is created when sunlight triggers a chemical reaction between oxygen and certain pollutants from cars, factories, and other sources.

Ozone can irritate the lining of your airways and lungs. People with asthma and other lung conditions are more likely to feel its effects.

When people with poorly controlled asthma are exposed to low levels of ozone, the amount of inflammation in the lungs goes way up. As a result, air passages narrow, which makes it much harder to breathe.

Another type of outdoor pollutant that affects health is particulates. These are fine and coarse particles that are released when fuel is burned. They can come from things like cars, power plants, and wildfires. Research has linked particulates to short- and long-term lung problems.

Other examples include:

  • Fine particles produced by the burning of fossil fuels (i.e. the coal and petroleum used in energy production)
  • Noxious gases (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, chemical vapors, etc.)
  • Ground-level ozone (a reactive form of oxygen and a primary component of urban smog)
  • Tobacco Smoke

People who are sensitive to outdoor pollution may want to use the Air Quality Index (AQI) to track when levels are high. This information can help you make choices about when to do outdoor activities.

Indoor air pollution can come from many sources and involves exposures to particulates, carbon oxides, and other pollutants carried by indoor air or dust. Secondhand tobacco smoke contains tiny particles that can hurt your lungs. Gas stoves and appliances can create harmful gases.

Pets and pests (such as mice and cockroaches) can shed substances, called allergens, that cause allergies. Mold and dust mites also produce allergens. Even furniture and cleaning products can release harmful compounds into the air.

Other examples include:

  • Gases (carbon monoxide, radon, etc.)
  • Household chemicals
  • Building materials (asbestos, formaldehyde, lead, etc.)
  • Pollen
  • Wood smoke
  • Strong fragrances
  • Mold or dampness
  • Dust mites (tiny bugs that live in beds and carpets)

In some instances, outdoor air pollution can make its way indoors by way of open windows, doors, ventilation, etc.

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What health effects are linked to air pollution?

Over the past 30 years, researchers have unearthed a wide array of health effects which are believed to be associated with air pollution exposure.  Among them are respiratory diseases (in addition to asthma and changes in lung function), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular diseases, adverse pregnancy outcomes (such as preterm birth), and even death.

Research has shown that improving indoor air quality in the home can improve the health of kids with lung conditions. Research has shown that, in addition to improving health, improving indoor air quality can also boost how well kids do in school. Kids who come to school and aren’t as sick are going to do better.

How can I reduce my risk for air pollution exposure?

One good thing about indoor air pollution is that many causes can be removed or changed. A simple tool for many homes is making sure inside air has a chance to escape. Ventilating your house, such as opening windows, can actually lower the air pollution levels inside. This strategy may not work on days when outdoor pollution is very high. Paying attention to the AQI or other measures of outdoor air quality can help you decide when to let inside air out.

Indoor air pollution can be reduced by making sure that a building is well-ventilated and cleaned regularly to prevent the buildup of agents like dust and mold.  Occupants would also be wise to remove any known pollutants and or irritants (aerosols, stringent cleaning supplies, etc.) whenever possible.

If you have asthma, an asthma attack can happen when you are exposed to asthma triggers. Your triggers can be very different from those of someone else with asthma. Know your triggers and learn how to avoid them. Watch out for an attack when you can’t avoid the triggers.

Learn More about Some of the Most Common Asthma Triggers:

Tobacco Smoke

Tobacco smoke is unhealthy for everyone, especially people with asthma. If you have asthma and you smoke, quit smoking.

“Secondhand smoke” is smoke created by a smoker and breathed in by a second person. Secondhand smoke can trigger an asthma attack. If you have asthma, people should never smoke near you, in your home, in your car, or wherever you may spend a lot of time.

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Dust Mites

Dust mites are tiny bugs that are in almost every home. If you have asthma, dust mites can trigger an asthma attack. To prevent attacks, use mattress covers and pillowcase covers to make a barrier between dust mites and yourself. Don’t use down-filled pillows, quilts, or comforters. Remove stuffed animals and clutter from your bedroom. Wash your bedding weekly.

Outdoor Air Pollution

Outdoor air pollution can trigger an asthma attack. This pollution can come from factories, cars, and other sources. Pay attention to air quality forecasts on radio, television, and the Internet and check your newspaper to plan your activities for when air pollution levels will be low.

Cockroach Allergen

Cockroaches and their droppings can trigger an asthma attack. Get rid of cockroaches in your home by removing as many water and food sources as you can. Cockroaches are often found where food is eaten and crumbs are left behind. At least every 2 to 3 days, vacuum or sweep areas that might attract cockroaches. Use roach traps or gels to cut down on the number of cockroaches in your home.

Pets

Furry pets can trigger an asthma attack. If you think a furry pet may be causing attacks, you may want to find the pet another home. If you can’t or don’t want to find a new home for the pet, keep it out of the person with asthma’s bedroom.

Bathe pets every week and keep them outside as much as you can. People with asthma are not allergic to their pet’s fur, so trimming the pet’s fur will not help your asthma. If you have a furry pet, vacuum often. If your floors have a hard surface, such as wood or tile, damp mop them every week.

Mold or Dampness

Breathing in mold can trigger an asthma attack. Get rid of mold in your home to help control your attacks. Humidity, the amount of moisture in the air, can make mold grow. An air conditioner or dehumidifier will help you keep the humidity level low. Get a small tool called a hygrometer to check humidity levels and keep them as low as you can—no higher than 50%. Humidity levels change over the course of a day, so check the humidity levels more than once a day. Fix water leaks, which let mold grow behind walls and under floors.

Smoke From Burning Wood or Grass

Smoke from burning wood or other plants is made up of a mix of harmful gases and small particles. Breathing in too much of this smoke can cause an asthma attack. If you can, avoid burning wood in your home. If a wildfire is causing poor air quality in your area pay attention to air quality forecasts on radio, television, and the Internet and check your newspaper to plan your activities for when air pollution levels will be low.

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Other Triggers

Infections linked to influenza (flu), colds, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can trigger an asthma attack. Sinus infections, allergies, breathing in some chemicals, and acid reflux can also trigger attacks.

Physical exercise; some medicines; bad weather, such as thunderstorms or high humidity; breathing in cold, dry air; and some foods, food additives, and fragrances can also trigger an asthma attack.

Strong emotions can lead to very fast breathing, called hyperventilation, that can also cause an asthma attack.

Developing Technologies

To better understand how people are affected by air pollution, especially as people move between indoor and outdoor environments, researchers are developing technologies to measure personal exposures and collect data on when and where exposures occurred. They are also considering factors such as a person’s activity levels, which might increase inhalation of pollutants and bring about deeper deposition in the lungs.

The Immunity, Inflammation, and Disease Laboratory focuses on understanding how the human body protects itself against environmental exposures. Diet, commercial chemicals, or bacterial allergens, may pose a threat to the body, and as a result, the immune system produces white blood cells that recognize and respond to these foreign substances called antigens. Sometimes the white blood cells release too many chemicals in the blood, which leads to inflammation. Laboratory members investigate the mechanisms that cause inflammatory diseases that occur in the thymus, heart, lungs, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, and intestine.

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