Is Your House an Asthma Trigger?

Information and tips on how to control the environment to prevent asthmatic attacks.

Does a furry pet live in your home? Do you have wall-to-wall carpeting? What's in our environment - including inside our homes - may have a lot to do with a growing asthma epidemic in America, researchers say.

Cockroaches, dust mites, animal dander, mold and secondhand smoke have been blamed for making asthma worse, particularly in children. Now researchers are calling on the federal government to declare a "war on asthma" by zeroing in on environmental triggers in both indoor and outdoor air that contribute to asthma's development and severity.

The Pew Environmental Health Commission at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health concluded that the number of people with asthma will more than double in the next 20 years, striking 29 million Americans, or one in five families.

Child asthma rates soar

Asthma rates have been going up dramatically throughout the years, according to Johns Hopkins researchers, who found between 1980 and 1994, asthma rates increased 75 percent - and by 160 percent for those younger than 4. (This is the most recent information on asthma increases.) Asthma is the number one cause of school absenteeism.

A report by the Institute of Medicine found evidence from dozens of studies that various substances in indoor air are significant factors in the increase in asthma cases.

"People spend most of their time inside, and it's vital that we understand how the indoor environment may contribute to the disease," Richard Johnston, chairman of the pediatrics department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and leader of the committee, said in a statement.

"Fortunately, there are actions people can take to limit their exposure and ease symptoms," he said.

Avoiding allergens inside the home

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers tips for parents on identifying and avoiding allergens in its Guide to Your Child's Allergies and Asthma.

Asthma, a chronic lung condition that makes breathing difficult and can be life-threatening, can have the same types of triggers as allergies. In fact, according to the AAP's guide, about 80 percent of children with asthma also have allergies and, for them, allergens are often the most common asthma triggers.

According to the AAP, energy-efficient homes can be traps for irritants and allergens that make life uncomfortable for children with asthma.

"Limiting outside air may be an advantage for a child allergic to pollens, but the reduced air circulation can be harmful for a child who is sensitive to fumes from cooking or from a gas or oil furnace, perfumes and air fresheners, aerosol sprays, dust mites, pet dander and the other 101 allergens found throughout the home," the AAP guide explains.

The AAP guide offers these suggestions for cutting down on indoor pollution to help your child with asthma:

Don't allow anyone to smoke in your home or car. Twenty-one percent of all youth in middle school and 26 percent of all teens in high school are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or in another building every day, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sixty-three percent of all youths are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or in another building at least once a week. Overall, children whose parents smoke have more frequent severe asthma attacks and need higher doses of asthma medications. An American Lung Association study found that children's wheezing bouts could be reduced by 20 percent if parents do not smoke in the family home. If someone in your family still smokes, urge that person to get help to quit.

Air control. Opening windows to keep down levels of dust, mites and molds may mean opening the doors to pollen-laded air, which could be a major asthma trigger for your child. Asthma and allergy experts recommend the use of a central air-conditioning as a compromise. An air conditioner is also a form of air filter, which can be useful during the pollen season.

Dust busters. Frequent damp dusting, wet-mopping of hard floors and vacuuming is a start to keep dust and the little critters in it out of your home. But keeping out dust requires an aggressive approach.

  • Forced-air heating and ventilation ducts can be sources of dust and allergens. Baseboard heating systems or steam radiators, which don't blow warm air and dust through vents, are the best bets. However, if that is not possible, fit ducts with air filters and clean and change the filters regularly. Also, consider running a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) cleaner in a room with the doors and windows shut.
  • Use only special allergy bags available from vacuum-cleaner dealers and allergy product retailers. The bags are made to fit most types of vacuum cleaners. An alternative is to invest in a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  • Encase bedroom mattresses and pillows in special dust-proof covers. Wash the sheets and blankets on your bed each week in hot water (hotter than 130 degrees F to kill the mites).

Molds. Sponge moldy areas with a fungicide cleaner or a mixture of one part chlorine bleach and 10 parts water. Throw away rugs and fabrics that have water damage or smell musty. Get rid of carpets and upholstered furniture in the basement and bathrooms where high humidity generally favors mold growth.

Cockroaches. Aerosol insecticides should not be used in a home where a child with asthma lives. Instead, use sticky traps, commonly called roach motels, and sprinkle trails of boric acid powder places where you can reach, around water pipes and in other hard-to-get places where roaches nest. Boric acid is not toxic to humans, but watch that the powder isn't in places where it can irritate your child's airways.

Disposable diapers. Parents of infants and toddlers also may want to consider using cloth diapers instead of disposables to reduce the amount of potential allergens. While the evidence that disposable diapers could be culprits in childhood asthma is still inconclusive, a study published in Archives of Environmental Health found that mice exposed to the chemicals emitted by the plastic coatings in disposable diapers developed eye and lung irritations, as well as breathing difficulties.

"Today the focus is on preventing symptoms instead of just treating them when they occur," says Gil D'Alonzo, M.D., director of the Airways Disease Center at Temple University Hospital. "With the proper approach, people can drastically reduce the impact that asthma has on their health and activities."




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