May is Asthma Awareness Month, Here’s What You Can Do
Asthma is a serious chronic respiratory disease that can negatively impact the quality of life of both children and adults. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and require immediate medical attention. In the US alone it’s estimated that over 25 million people have asthma. And unfortunately, that number has been increasing over the past few decades, with pediatric cases growing the most.
May is asthma awareness month and a good time to revisit what triggers to watch out for and what solutions can help.
The first step for anyone with a new diagnosis or supporting a loved one with the burden of chronic respiratory disease is, of course, awareness. That’s what this month is all about. It’s about education and awareness, specifically understanding the symptoms and what can trigger asthma symptoms in the first place to help prevent their onset as best as possible.
Several common triggers aggravate asthma symptoms or can lead to an asthma attack. Being aware of what triggers your asthma can help you avoid them and better control any symptoms.
Smoke and Smoking
Smoking and secondhand smoke cause many serious health effects including lung cancer and COPD.
The research on this is extensive and the risks are well known. Secondhand and even thirdhand smoke (smoke that builds up on surfaces like upholstery, clothes, and carpeting long after the source of the smoke is gone) can also trigger asthma symptoms and asthma attacks. Wood smoke, either outdoors from campfires or wildfires, or indoors from a fireplace or wood stove, can also trigger asthma symptoms.
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a toxic gas that is produced by burning fossil fuels, like gasoline and coal, as well as other industrial processes. Indoor sources of nitrogen dioxide include gas stoves, wood burning stoves, fireplaces, and tobacco smoke. Outdoor sources of nitrogen dioxide include vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions.
Pets and Pet Dander
Pet dander from animals like dogs, cats, and birds can also aggravate asthma symptoms. Dander refers to the tiny, microscopic flakes of skin, hair, or feathers that animals shed that then float in the air, wreaking havoc on sensitive lungs.
Pet dander can also attract and carry other allergens such as pollen, dust, and mold, which can make breathing issues worse.
While pet dander can be a significant trigger for people with respiratory problems, it's important to note that not everyone with asthma or even allergies more broadly is sensitive to pet dander. And some people may only experience symptoms with certain types of pets. Learning your exact triggers and watching out for them is key.
Dust and Dust Mites
Dust is a common indoor air pollutant that can aggravate asthma symptoms. Dust is made up of tiny particles such as dead skin cells, pet dander, pollen, and mold spores. Dust mites are microscopic insects that feed on dead skin cells and thrive in warm and humid environments.
When a person with asthma inhales dust or dust mite particles, their immune system may overreact leading to inflammation and swelling in the airways. This can cause asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
Dust mites are particularly problematic for people with asthma because they produce a protein that can trigger allergic reactions. It’s a disgusting fact, but these proteins are found in the fecal matter and body parts of the mites, which can be found in dust that accumulates in carpets, bedding, and upholstery.
Indoor Cleaning & Other Common Chemicals
Exposure to certain chemicals can trigger asthma symptoms or make existing symptoms worse. Here are some common chemicals to watch out for:
- Cleaning products: Some cleaning products, such as bleach, ammonia, and other harsh chemicals, can irritate the airways and trigger asthma symptoms.
- Paint and solvents: The fumes from paint and solvents can irritate the airways and trigger asthma symptoms.
- Pesticides: Exposure to pesticides, including insecticides and herbicides, can trigger asthma symptoms in some people.
- Perfumes and fragrances: The chemicals in perfumes and fragrances can irritate the airways and trigger asthma symptoms in some people.
- Air fresheners: The chemicals in air fresheners, including plug-ins and aerosols, can irritate the airways and trigger asthma symptoms. Of course, they’re meant to make your house smell good, but the chemicals they emit are a common indoor air pollutant that sacrifices your true air quality and masks problems with scent.
Industrial chemicals: People who work in industries such as manufacturing, construction, or agriculture may be exposed to chemicals that can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms.
Mold and Mold Spores
Mold is another common trigger for asthma symptoms. Mold is a type of fungus that grows in warm, damp environments, and can be found indoors and outdoors. Mold spores can be released into the air and inhaled, triggering an allergic reaction in some people with asthma.
Mold can grow on a variety of surfaces, including walls, ceilings, floors, and even furniture. It can also grow inside heating and air conditioning systems, where it can spread through the air and affect multiple rooms in a building. It’s commonly found in bathrooms, kitchens, and basements, as well as in areas that have been affected by water damage, such as after a flood or leak.
It can be difficult to detect because it often grows in hidden areas like behind walls or under floors. Some signs that mold may be present include a musty smell, water stains, and visible mold growth on surfaces.
Because mold can trigger asthma symptoms and cause other health problems, it's important to take steps to prevent or remove mold from indoor environments. This includes keeping indoor humidity levels below 50%, fixing any leaks or water damage promptly, and cleaning and disinfecting areas that are prone to mold growth.
Identifying your asthma triggers is the first step, but once you’ve identified what aggravates your asthma what do you do?
Asthma symptoms can be debilitating and pretty scary especially when it feels like you can’t breathe. Being aware of how your body reacts to asthma triggers is the next step. It’s important to have an asthma action plan to remain calm during an asthma attack.
Avoiding triggers is the easiest way to control asthma symptoms, but that’s not always possible. Avoiding the outdoors entirely on poor air quality days, say when pollen is heaviest or a wildfire is choking nearby air with smoke, isn’t always feasible or reasonable. So although we can’t completely avoid the most common asthma triggers we can try our best to minimize exposure for both children and adults.
To limit exposure to chemicals:
- Avoid using harsh cleaning products if cleaning disinfectants like bleach trigger your asthma.
- Opt for natural cleaners that don’t contain harsh chemicals or use common household items like vinegar or baking soda for cleaning.
- Take precautions like using gloves or wearing a respirator while you clean.
A respirator is a mask that’s designed to filter out airborne particles and other irritants. It can help reduce the risk of asthma symptoms and attacks during cleaning activities, or any activity where controlled exposure to airborne irritants is a necessary consideration.
It's important to note that not all respirators are appropriate for people with asthma and that wearing a respirator can be uncomfortable and may restrict breathing if not fitted and used correctly. Like you’ll see us say multiple times here, none of this advice should replace talking with your healthcare provider and getting a professional’s help with your condition and treatment options.
To limit exposure to smoke and NO2:
- Update wood burning stoves if possible.
- Turning on the hood fan when using a gas stove will help mitigate indoor nitrogen dioxide.
- Avoid smoke and smoke sources indoors and avoid being around smoking outdoors.
To limit exposure to pet dander, dust, and mold:
- Use allergen-proof covers on pillows, mattresses, and box springs.
- Wash bedding in hot water every week.
- Dust with a damp cloth and vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture regularly (this might seem obvious, but it’s worth sharing here since no air purifier is able to capture 100% of dust, dander, and indoor air pollution)
- Keep indoor humidity levels low (below 50%) with a dehumidifier’s help.
- Find a quality air purifier to clean the rooms you spend the most time in. Air purifiers with high efficiency air filters and a strong motor are safe and effective. Carbon activated filters can also help filter out VOCs from cleaning products and smoke, including wood, wildfire, and cooking smoke.
Limit Your Exposure and Seek Medical Advice
Whether you’re taking care of yourself or your children it’s important to have your asthma symptoms under control. Maintaining healthy indoor air quality is crucial. Filtering out the nasty particles from your home’s air is a natural way to keep your asthma symptoms in check.
If you have asthma, it's smart to be aware of potential triggers and avoid exposure to them as much as possible. If you think you’ve been exposed to a chemical that’s triggered your asthma symptoms, seek medical attention right away.
And of course, none of this advice should replace the guidance of a qualified medical professional. If you or a loved one have asthma, it’s a good start to know what triggers could potentially lead to symptoms and what you can do to minimize your exposure to them. That said, your doctor will be best suited to help develop a treatment plan that’s specific to your needs and condition.