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Household Hazards for People With COPD

Many homes harbor dust, fumes, germs, and other irritants that aggravate COPD symptoms.
By David Freeman
WebMD Feature

Smoking poses an enormous threat to the lungs of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) -- and no wonder. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including 43 that are known to cause cancer. Outdoor air pollution is another significant threat.

But those are not the only threats to people with COPD, a lung disease that encompasses both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Many homes harbor dust, fumes, germs, and other irritants that aggravate COPD symptoms like wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. The risks are especially high in the 20% of COPD sufferers who also have allergies.

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You might be surprised at some of the things around the house that can cause trouble. For example, some air filters that help rid the air of dust give off small amounts of ozone, an air pollutant that is a lung irritant.

“Ozone can certainly be problematic for people with COPD,” says Byron Thomashow, MD, professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and chairman of the COPD Foundation. “That’s why I usually recommend HEPA filters,” which don’t give off ozone.

Here are nine other household hazards for people with COPD:

1. Air Ducts Filled With Dust

The forced-air heating and cooling systems found in many homes can blow dust and other irritants throughout the house. Cleaning the air ducts periodically can help alleviate this problem.

2. Carpets That Collect Dust and Dirt

Rugs and carpets are another major source of dust and dirt. “Every time you walk on a carpet or rug, you stir up a cloud of dust that you may or may not be able to see,” says Neil Schachter, MD, professor of medicine and community medicine and medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Wall-to-wall carpets cause more trouble than rugs, because they tend to be bigger (and therefore harbor more irritants) and harder to clean than rugs (which can simply be rolled up and taken to a cleaner). New carpets can be especially irritating, because they can “out-gas” formaldehyde and other noxious organic compounds for an extended period of time after installation.

The bottom line? “If someone in the house has COPD, bare wood floors are best,” says Schachter. To further minimize the threat posed by dust, leave shoes at the door and arrange to have someone who doesn’t have COPD dust, sweep, vacuum, etc.

3. Cleaning Products That Give Off Fumes

Oven cleaners, spray polish, and other household cleansers -- especially those that contain bleach or ammonia -- can be very irritating. “Anything that gives off fumes can cause problems -- bathroom cleaning products, in particular,” Thomashow says.

“Many people with COPD have a red, raw airway,” Schachter says. “If you breathe in the fumes from these products, you’re just fanning the flames.”

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