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.
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.”
He recommends replacing fume-producing products with less-irritating “green” cleansers -- or relying on old-fashioned cleaning agents like soap and water, baking soda, and vinegar.
The room being cleaned should be well ventilated, and someone who doesn’t have COPD should wield the mop and scrub brush (and the person with COPD should steer clear until the job is done). After use, cleaning products should be tightly capped and put away.
If someone with COPD must use cleaning products, the COPD Foundation recommends wearing a respirator mask rated “N95” by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
4. Dry Cleaning Chemicals
Some people with COPD are sensitive to the odor of newly dry-cleaned garments. To avoid trouble, take the clothes out of the plastic and let them air out before putting them in your closet.
Alternatively, put them in a room with an open window -- and close the door. You might also look for a “green” dry cleaner that doesn’t use harsh chemicals.
5. Fireplaces and Wood Stoves
A roaring wood fire gives off light and warmth -- and all manner of irritating gases and sooty particulate matter.
“I generally recommend against using fireplaces,” Thomashow says, with a laugh. “Fake ones are OK.”
Schachter says, “Having a fire is like smoking a cigarette. I’m not saying do away completely with fires and candlelight dinners but to do everything in reason.”
One fire that should never be allowed to burn inside the home of someone with COPD: the one at the tip of a cigarette. “There can be no compromise with smoking,” Schachter says. “That is death.” Even passive smoking (exposure to someone else’s tobacco smoke) can be risky for people with COPD.
6. Moisture That Breeds Bacteria and Mold
From shower stalls to basements to that sponge left lying by the kitchen sink, sources of moisture in the home can promote the growth of bacteria and mold.
What can you do to stymie these irritants? Seal all leaks. Wipe up spills right away, and throw out water-damaged carpeting. Use fans to increase ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens. Replace kitchen and bath sponges frequently.
Pick up a humidity meter and take steps to keep indoor humidity below 40% -- for example, by running a dehumidifier or air conditioner.
7. Pet Dander and Dirt
Not eager to bid au revoir to Rover? Have him washed and groomed twice a month. And keep him out of your bedroom.
8. Showerheads That Harbor Mycobacteria
Recent research has shown that showerheads can harbor so-called “atypical mycobacteria.”
These germs are generally harmless to healthy people, but capable of causing a chronic, low-grade infection that brings coughing and shortness of breath in people with COPD.
Mycobacteria are also resistant to antibiotics, making them hard to eradicate.
To avoid trouble, Schachter recommends having showerheads cleaned (or replaced) twice a year.
9. Toiletries: Scented Soaps, Shampoos, Sprays
Some people with COPD are sensitive to scented soaps, shampoos, deodorants, hairsprays, and cosmetics. If that describes someone in your house, stick with unscented personal products -- and steer clear of perfume and cologne.