Your lungs are sensitive to irritants in the air, especially if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that makes it harder to breathe. COPD includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and inflammation in your lungs.
COPD symptoms can vary from day to day, says Carolyn Rochester, MD, who specializes in COPD and pulmonary rehabilitation at Yale Medicine. But some stuff in your home can bother your lungs more than usual. You could have an “acute exacerbation.” That’s when your airflow gets blocked so bad, you need extra medicine or hospital treatment, she says.
You and your doctor can work together to protect your lungs.
“A key goal of managing COPD is to recognize and prevent any exposures or triggers for those exacerbations,” Rochester says. “And there are many household items that can worsen symptoms. Many things are perhaps unrecognized.”
Here are some things you need to watch out for.
Some chemicals in disinfectants and cleaning supplies are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “These tiny droplets can be inhaled through the nose and the mouth. And then they go down your trachea, which is your main windpipe,” Rochester says. “And then they get deep down into the bronchial tubes, which are our air passages.”
Once that happens, she says, the muscles in your airways can tighten and make it harder to breathe.
Here are some chemicals she says may worsen your symptoms:
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Chlorine bleach
Rochester recommends avoiding aerosol products completely, if possible. They create a kind of chemical dust that lingers in the air. While the fumes or smells from wipe-on cleaners may still cause breathing problems, they should be less bothersome to your lungs than the spray-on kind, Rochester says.
If you do have to use a strong disinfectant or cleaner, there are some extra steps you can take to protect your lungs. Rochester suggests you:
- Wear a mask
- Open a window
- Turn on a fan
- Avoid products with fragrance
- Get someone else to clean for you
You can opt for safer cleaning supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists “Safer Choice” products on its website. These are cleaners that give off less airway-irritating chemicals.
Less-harsh cleaning options include:
- Regular soap and water
- Baking soda for scrubbing
- Vinegar and water to clean glass
Here’s what you can do about common allergy sources:
Carpets. These aren’t a problem for everyone with COPD, Rochester says. But you may need to get rid of them if you’re allergic to dust mites. It can be hard to remove these microscopic bugs from carpet “even with the most rigorous cleaning efforts,” she says.
Pet dander. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to live without your animal companions. In that case, Rochester suggests keeping certain areas, like your bedroom, off limits to your pets. “If a person has a known allergy to their pet, one would want to avoid things like having a cat sleep on your bed with you,” she says.
You can take allergy medicine for mild to moderate allergies. But if you don’t know what you’re allergic to, or your symptoms are really serious, ask your doctor for a referral to an allergist or immunologist.
It’s pretty common for this fungus to live indoors. Some people are allergic to it. But it probably won’t bother your lungs unless you have a serious mold problem, says Benjamin Seides, MD, director of interventional pulmonology at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “You’re talking water damage or a neglected basement that has mold growing in the walls,” he says.
Make sure your bathroom isn’t too damp. You can use an exhaust fan to push extra moisture outside, and clean your tub and showerhead regularly. “But I don’t think you need to go to extraordinary measures to keep your bathroom like an operating theater to avoid it,” Seides says.
Repair any water leaks. If you do have to clean a moist area, like a basement or attic, you may need to wear an N95 respirator mask, Rochester says. “And if you notice a change in how the air in your home smells, then you should get that evaluated by a professional.”
You have different types of sensors in your airways, and scents can affect them. Your airways can tighten, which is what causes shortness of breath or chest tightness, Rochester says.
Her advice: You may need to keep your household free of things such as:
- Air freshener
- Scented soaps
- Anything with “fragrance”
- Smoke-related smells
Fireplaces or Wood-Burning Stoves
These create tiny particles that are bad for your lungs. You can breathe in invisible pollutants. One is carbon monoxide, which is poisonous.
Make sure the area is well-ventilated, if you do use a fireplace or wood-burning stove. You’ll also need to be careful not to breathe in smoke from outdoor fire pits, Rochester says.
Regular gas stoves can raise levels of nitrogen dioxide in your home. That’s a kind of air pollution. If you cook with this kind of stove, make sure it has a hood that takes air outside of your home, Rochester says. If that’s not possible, open a window and use a fan to blow the air outside.
You might breathe easier if you switch to an electric stove, she says. That’s a big investment, but it’s worth considering.
You probably already know this, but tobacco smoke is really bad for your COPD. If you or anyone in your household smokes, quit. Ask your doctor for help.
It’s best to avoid the cause of your worsening COPD symptoms. But that’s not always possible. Here are some other steps that may help:
Use clean air filters. These remove particles like pollen, dust, and pet dander from the air in your home. They go in your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. You’ll need to change or clean them on a regular basis. In certain cases, it might be helpful to use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter; for example, if you live near a factory that has a smokestack you can’t avoid, Rochester says.
Get a portable air purifier. These can’t clean air completely. But they might help make the air quality in small areas better. Look for one that uses a HEPA filter. Avoid any device that says it cleans air with ozone. That chemical is bad for your lungs.
Ask for Help
Tell your doctor if you’re not sure what makes your COPD worse. Your health insurance might pay for a specialist to check the air quality in your home, Rochester says. These trained professionals can look for lots of inside and outside sources that might worsen your symptoms.