Poor indoor air quality is a major trigger for asthma and allergies, as well as a cause of asthma, particularly in younger people.
Most of us spend a lot of time in our homes and that’s become even more the case in recent times. Yet few of us have a detailed understanding of the quality of the air that we breathe indoors. It may contain pollutants and toxins that cause or aggravate asthma and allergies.
By monitoring indoor air in your home, you gain quality data about many of the key factors that can cause asthma to flare-up. Find out how to identify the problems that may trigger asthma in the home and help put them right.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a condition that inflames the airways that carry air in and out of your lungs. It causes symptoms like coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. Certain ‘triggers’ may make these symptoms worse by irritating your airways and making them narrower, as the muscle around them contracts1.
It’s estimated that asthma affects as many as 339 million people worldwide, spanning all ages and causing both mild and severe symptoms for sufferers2. The complaint is on the rise; in the US, for example, rates of childhood asthma have more than doubled since the 1980s3. Curiously, while more girls have asthma than boys, statistics show that for adults, it is more common in women than in men4.
The exact causes of asthma are unknown, but it tends to run in families, particularly when there is a history of allergies or smoking. And in developed countries at least, asthma often goes alongside other allergies like eczema and hay fever5.
Children are more at risk of asthma if they were born prematurely (before 37 weeks), especially if they needed a ventilator to help them breathe. Likewise, the condition has been linked to pollution and occupational hazards, like chemicals or dust6.
Some of the top ‘triggers’ that cause flare-ups of asthma include dust mites, cigarette smoke, and damp or mold7.
How do air quality and allergens affect asthma?
Health professionals believe that allergens in the air we breathe both cause asthma and trigger the condition. When you have asthma, your airways are already a little inflamed. Certain external factors, or ‘triggers’, are likely to further irritate your lungs and make these symptoms worse. These can include second-hand cigarette smoke and allergens such as dust mites, damp, mold, pollen, and pet hair8.
The risks don’t stop there. Some cleaning products and disinfectants can trigger an asthma attack. These products often contain airborne chemicals (VOCs or volatile organic compounds). These odorous gases are released by certain household products and activities, from cleaning fluids to cooking and open fires and chemicals, which we breathe in. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights the risks that airbonre chemicals (VOCs) like hydrogen peroxide, ethyl alcohol, peroxyacetic acid, sodium hypochlorite, and quaternary ammonium compounds pose to those with asthma9.
If your home is too humid, it could be a breeding ground for potential asthma triggers and allergens. Dust mites are more likely to thrive when the humidity in your home exceeds 50%10. These microscopic bugs like to live in soft furnishings. carpets, and bedding, causing allergic reactions11.
Mold and mildew also flourish in high humidity. If you breathe in the spores, they can trigger asthma, whether you’re allergic to these substances or not12. Additionally, when the air is warm and humid, many people feel that breathing becomes harder work, so these conditions can cause them to breathe faster, which risks making symptoms worse13.
High levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have been linked to asthma, for similar reasons to humidity. This greenhouse gas contributes to the proliferation of pollen and spores, both of which trigger the condition. CO2 fumes from engines, heaters, and other outlets may also irritate asthmatic lungs, making them more sensitive14.
How to improve indoor air quality to help control asthma
We’ve seen that indoor air quality and asthma are inseparably linked, but how can you start improving the air in your home so that its effects on the condition are controlled?
To start with, it’s vital to have accurate information about the air in your property and any problems that it might create. Airthings indoor air quality monitors provide data about pollutants and factors that cause and trigger asthma in the home, like VOCs, CO2, particulate matter (PM), humidity, and temperature.
With a reliable source of real-time information and alerts, you can keep track of conditions in your home and make adjustments to optimize your environment.
Cleaners and disinfectants are a particularly common source of VOCs, though they’re also present in many paints, varnishes, new furniture, and solvents.
To deal with these chemicals, it’s important to have good ventilation anywhere they might be used. Don’t store unused paints, cleaners, and similar products in busy parts of your home, if you can possibly help it.
Many low-VOC or no-VOC alternative products are now available, so check labels carefully whenever you shop. Similarly, used or repurposed furniture may not give off these chemicals to the same extent as newer items.
When it comes to cleaning, you can use soap or water to scrub off dirt, before using any disinfectant. It’s also important not to mix two products and to follow the instructions carefully. Wear protective gear where appropriate15.
If CO2 is building up in your home, good ventilation is key. It might be enough to open a window, but you should also make sure any heating and ventilation systems are working well. By contrast, levels of PM will depend on the environment outside. Pollen and other particles that trigger asthma could actually get into your property through open doors or windows.
If you have a heating and cooling system, a high efficiency filter helps clean the air by removing pollen, smoke, and other particles, as well as dispersing carbon dioxide safely. Make sure the equipment is serviced regularly and replace filters as per the manufacturer’s instructions16.
We’ve seen that warm, humid conditions encourage allergens that trigger asthma, like dust mites and mold, to thrive.
To prevent high humidity, good ventilation is important. When you’re cooking, use a ventilation hood, and, when you’re using the bathroom or laundry, make sure you activate extractor fans. It helps, as well, to heat your home to a consistent temperature, and avoid drying towels or other items on radiators.
When it comes to temperature, excessive heat can cause heavier or faster breathing. To create more consistent and comfortable conditions, turn down the thermostat a little, but leave the heating on for a longer period. Your property will be more comfortable and less humid as a result.
Other ways to keep asthma under control
Health bodies, such as the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, recommend working with your doctor to create an ‘asthma action plan’. Through this type of cooperation, and your own experience, you will learn to identify the triggers that worsen your symptoms17.
Some people with asthma are sensitive to medicines, like aspirin, so you may be asked to avoid particular medication by your doctor, or discuss how you use it. Outdoor air pollution, or very cold air, can trigger the condition, so keep an eye on the weather forecast, and make informed decisions about going out.
It’s important to avoid triggers, as well as to promote good health by eating well, maintaining a healthy weight, getting exercise, and managing stress. These lifestyle changes, in conjunction with monitoring indoor air quality in your home, could be the key to helping keep symptoms under control18.
- Poor indoor air quality in the home can cause asthma to develop and trigger the disease in people with existing symptoms.
- When you have asthma, your airways are inflamed, and allergens in the air aggravate your lungs further, making symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness worse.
- Many household products contain airborne chemicals (VOCs), which can aggravate the lungs. High humidity encourages allergens linked to asthma, like dust mites and mold, to thrive.
Airthings indoor air quality monitors provide important real-time information on asthma-affecting pollutants and factors like VOCs, CO2, humidity and temperature, so you can take action and optimise your environment.