If you have COPD, then you know that clean air is a necessity for both comfort and health. It follows, then, that the quality of the air you breathe in your home on a daily basis can have a large impact on how you feel.
Part of having COPD is being extra cautious about the air your breathe and the environments you choose to spend your time in. However, many COPD patients don't realize that they could be breathing heavily polluted air inside their own home.
Since most people spend most of their time indoors, poor indoor air quality can cause even more problems than outdoor pollution. Particulates, pollutants, and biological contaminates—including mold, allergens, toxic gases, dust, and a variety of other irritating particles—can all be found indoors.
If you suffer from COPD, these contaminants can cause serious irritation and inflammation in your lungs. Exposure to poor air quality for even short periods of time can make your COPD symptoms worse and even lead to exacerbations.
That's why it's important to take charge of your indoor environment and keep the air in your house as clean and healthy as possible. You'll likely find that you feel better, breathe better, and can be more active at home as a result.
In this article, we'll help you improve your indoor air by explaining what causes poor indoor air quality, why it matters, and what you can do to prevent it. We'll explain how airborne particulates affect your COPD and how to hunt down and eliminate potential sources of respiratory irritants in your home.
There are lots of different ways to reduce indoor pollution, and it's not difficult to do once you identify the main sources of airborne irritants in your home. So if you want to breathe the freshest, cleanest air possible, this article is for you.
How Indoor Pollution Affects COPD
When you talk about air pollution, many people only think about outdoor pollution caused by industry, cars, and weather. But, in reality, smog, pollen, mold spores, and other airborne particles can pollute indoor air as well.
Contaminates in the air, whether indoor or outdoor, can worsen COPD symptoms like breathlessness and fatigue and even cause the disease to progress more quickly. Studies show that prolonged exposure to poor air quality can even increase your risk of being hospitalized or experiencing a COPD exacerbation.
That's why it's so important to pay attention to the quality of the air you breathe both indoors and outdoors. If you don't make an effort to keep particulates and other airborne contaminates out of your home, you could be doing even more permanent damage to your lungs.
Common Symptoms of Exposure to Airborne Particulates:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness and discomfort
- Coughing or wheezing
- Dry, irritated throat
- Excess mucus in lungs and airways
- Dry, itchy nose
- Itchy, dry, or watery eyes
Pollution in Your Home
As important as it is to avoid air pollution outdoors, it can be even more important to avoid poor indoor air. That's because houses tend to be well-sealed and circulate the same air over and over.
New contaminants can easily come in through your windows and doors, but they won't make it back of your home unless you make a deliberate effort to get rid of them.
Because of this, everything from dust, pollen, bacteria, and mold tend to build up in the air and inside the ventilation system over time. Since most people spend the majority of their time indoors, most people are consistently exposed to all of the irritating airborne contaminants that manage to get trapped inside their homes.
Indoor pollution comes in a variety of forms, including toxic gases, airborne particles, and biological contaminants like mold. Some of these airborne particles and pollutants originate from sources indoors, while others are brought in from outside.
Here is a list of common respiratory irritants and pollutants you might find in your home:
- Smoke (from tobacco, fireplaces, barbecues, incense, etc.)
- Toxic gases (e.g. radon and carbon monoxide)
- Household Chemicals
- Dust Mites
- Pet Dander
For most healthy people, poor quality indoor air only causes minor respiratory irritation or no symptoms at all. However, prolonged exposure over time can lead to serious health complications, including lung diseases like COPD later in life.
For people who already have COPD, exposure to contaminated indoor air for even a short period of time can cause serious respiratory irritation. It can worsen COPD symptoms, cause a decrease lung function, and in general make daily activities more difficult.
How to Reduce Indoor Air Pollution
If you have COPD, you know that your lungs are particularly sensitive to contaminants in the air. That's why, in order to keep yourself healthy, you should take special care to keep all forms of dust, smoke, allergens, and other pollutants out of the air in your home.
The first step to cleaner indoor air is to develop new household habits and cleaning regimens that will prevent particles from building up in the nooks and crannies in your house. The next step is to invest in any of a variety of air filters, purifiers, and other appliances that can remove airborne particulates and moisture from the air.
Avoid Tracking Particulates into Your Home
Many people don't realize that humans and pets are the source of many of the airborne particulates and biological contaminants that make it into their homes. That's because open windows and foot traffic in and out of the house tends to bring in dust, pollen, mold, and other particles from outside.
Every time you go outdoors, particulates in the air have the opportunity to settle on your shoes, clothes and hair. Then, when you come back inside, those contaminants get shaken off as you go about your business at home.
The dust, pollen, and other particles float loose in the air and eventually settle into your carpet, furniture, drapes, and other surfaces. These pollutants stay in your house and get kicked back up into the air every day, triggering allergies and worsened COPD symptoms whenever you spend time indoors.
To prevent this, here are some tips for reducing the amount of harmful particles you and others track into your home:
- Get a large mat to put outside every entrance to your house. Wipe your feet before you come indoors and ask guests to do the same.
- Take off your shoes immediately after coming indoors. Never wear shoes while walking on carpet or rugs.
- Shake off outerwear like coats, jackets, hats, and scarves before coming indoors. Launder these items often to remove any allergens or other irritating particles that they pick up outside.
- Take a shower after doing yard work, gardening, or spending extended periods of time outdoors to get any pollen or other particles off of your skin and out of your hair. This will prevent contaminates from outdoors getting in your nose, in the air, and on your furniture and bedsheets.
- On days when the outdoor air quality is good, open all your windows and air out your house. This will allow built-up gases and particles in your home to escape and get replaced with fresher, cleaner air.
Protect Yourself on High-Pollution Days
Check Local Air Quality
If you aren't already in the habit, you should make it a point to check your local air quality every day. Most local weather programs offer daily reports and forecasts on the levels of smog and other airborne particulates in their region.
In order to make sense of your local air quality report you'll need to be able to understand the Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI scale goes from 0-500, with 500 being the most hazardous and zero being the least.
If you have COPD, an AQI above 100 can be dangerous and make your symptoms worse.
Here's a brief overview of the AQI scale and what it means:
- 1-50 AQI: good air quality
- 51-100 AQI: moderate air quality
- 101-150 AQI: unhealthy for people who are sensitive to air quality (e.g. people with COPD)
- 151-200 AQI: unhealthy for everyone
- 201-300 AQI: very unhealthy air quality
- 301-500 AQI: very hazardous air quality
Most cities have an average AQI below 100 on the scale most of the time, but that average can get higher in large cities and during certain times of the year. AQI values above 300, however, are very uncommon and only happen under extreme circumstances such as when there is a forest fire nearby.
To keep track of your local conditions, you can go to airnow.gov for detailed air quality reports and visit pollen.org for allergen forecasts. There are also a variety of Android and iPhone apps (e.g. Smog Report or AIRNow) that you can use to conveniently check the air quality where you live.
If you want to get really high-tech, you can even get a portable, personal pollution monitor. While it might be overkill, it can be useful to have a reliable way to quickly check the air quality wherever you go, especially if you have advanced COPD or you are particularly sensitive and susceptible to poor air.
Watch the Weather
It is useful to pay attention to certain weather conditions, like heat and humidity, when determining whether or not you should go outside. High temperatures and high humidity alone can make COPD symptoms worse, but they can impact allergies and air quality, too.
Here are the main weather factors that affect outdoor air quality:
- Humidity: Air quality tends to be worse on high-humidity days because water droplets in the air trap airborne contaminants. Humidity also encourages the growth of dust mites, mold, and other fungi that can cause respiratory symptoms.
- Temperature: The warm summer months tend to be much worse than the cooler winter months in terms of air quality. This is partially because of increased humidity on warm days and the presence of allergens like pollen and mold. It's also the time of year that people are most likely to be outdoors and active.
Pollution and pollen forecasts are useful for identifying days and times when you should be particularly careful to stay indoors. They can also help you plan outdoor activities and excursions for days that are less hazardous to your lungs.
Here are some tips for avoiding exposure on days with high pollution:
- Make sure to check your local air quality report every day, especially during the summer.
- When the air quality is considered “unhealthy,” stay inside as much as possible and keep all doors and windows closed.
- Avoid spending time outdoors on high-humidity days and shut your doors and windows to keep the moisture out of your house.
- Don't exercise or do any heavy physical activity outdoors on high-pollution days.
- Avoid spending too much time on busy roads, in inner cities, and in parking lots where car and industry emissions are more dense.
- If you have the option, set your car's ventilation system to recycle the air in your cabin instead of pulling in air from outdoors while you're on the road.
- Never smoke indoors! Also avoid other common sources of smoke in the home, including fireplaces, barbecues, wood burning stoves, candles, and incense.
Filter Your Air
Cleaning regularly and airing out your house can only do so much to improve your indoor air quality. If you are extremely sensitive to airborne irritants, then you'll need some extra equipment to remove the finest particulates and biological contaminants from the air.
The first thing you should consider is a high-quality HVAC filter for your main ventilation system at home. There are dozens of options to choose from, but pay attention to the label since they can vary greatly in quality and effectiveness.
Avoid cheap HVAC filters that only catch the largest dust particles because they let all sorts of other respiratory irritants through. Instead, look for filters that can trap smaller particles like pollen, mold, and other microscopic particles.
While an HVAC filter will passively remove a certain amount of irritating particulates, they are not nearly as effective or thorough as a high-quality electronic air purifier. A multi-step HEPA purifier, for example, can filter out 99 percent of particles as tiny as .3 microns.
You can find small, portable air purifiers as well as more expensive whole-house air purification systems. Whole-house systems are expensive, but they can give you the most value of any air filtration product you can buy.
If you decide against a whole-house air purification system, you can also get portable air purifiers that work great for single rooms and small spaces. Portable purifiers are a perfect way to clean the air in your bedroom while you sleep, or you can place them in other rooms in your home that you spend a lot of your time in.
When looking for the right air filter or purifier, make sure to pay attention to what sizes of particles the product is rated for. Purifiers that filter large particles generally remove dust, pollen, and mold spores, while ones that filter smaller particles can remove smoke, soot, and bacteria from the air.
Watch Out for Pets
Unfortunately, furry pets that spend time outdoors track in even more pollutant particles than humans do. Dogs and cats both have thick fur that is capable of collecting a great deal more pollen, dust, and grime than human clothes do.
If you have a cat, the best solution is to keep it indoors. If you have a dog or outdoor cat, you should enforce a “no pets on the furniture” rule to keep your upholstery as clean and pollutant-free as possible.
Here are some other tips to keep your pets from making your indoor air quality worse:
- Brush your pets often to remove excess hair, dust, pollen, and other particles. Just make sure you brush them outdoors so contaminants don't get loose in the air in your home.
- Give dogs regular baths to wash allergens and pollutants out of their fur.
- Consider getting hardwood floors instead of carpet and limiting the number of rugs and other fabric surfaces in your home.
- Clean your pet beds and blankets often. Most dog and cat beds have removable covers that you can conveniently throw in the wash.
- Always keep your pets off of your bed, couches, and other upholstered furniture. Consider getting your pet their own designated chair, pet bed, or other comfortable spot to lounge on instead.
Prevent Mold Growth
Mold is another contributor to poor indoor air quality that can make your COPD symptoms worse. Every indoor space is bound to have at least some mold, but it can spread and get out of hand in moist, humid conditions.
To prevent excess mold from contaminating your home, make sure to clean up water from leaks and spills as quickly as possible. If anything—including carpets, walls, ceilings, and furniture—stays damp for more than 24 hours, you're guaranteed to get mold.
Sometimes mold grows stealthily in out-of-sight places, especially in bathrooms and basements. It's a good idea to have your house inspected every so often for hidden mold growth, especially if you notice you have allergies or worsened COPD symptoms at home.
When hunting for mold, look out for the sure-fire signs of mold growth: visible moisture, water stains, and a musty stench. If you locate any mold spots, clean them up immediately with soap and warm water and check the area thoroughly for any mold you might have missed.
If you have mold that covers more than ten square feet or is in a hard-to-reach area (e.g. in your walls or ceiling) you should call in a professional to help.
Besides promptly drying up leaks and spills, controlling the humidity and airflow in your house is the best way to prevent mold from contaminating your home. Even in the absence of mold, humidity on its own can make it difficult to breathe if you have COPD and encourage the growth of other respiratory irritants like dust mites and bacteria.
That's why you should ensure that there is adequate ventilation all throughout your house, especially in your kitchen and bathrooms. Running the shower, for instance, generates a great deal of humidity that has nowhere to go unless you turn on a vent fan or open a window. Other appliances, like your dishwasher or clothes dryer can contribute to excess humidity, too.
You can also get a dehumidifier to pull excess moisture out of the air if you struggle with high indoor humidity or live in an area with a very humid climate. For optimal results, most doctors recommend keeping indoor humidity below fifty percent.
Clean Surfaces Often
Dust and allergens can collect on any surface: tables, counters, curtains, carpet, shelving, and just about everything else. Carpets and fabric, in particular, tend to trap and hold particles and let them build up.
All it takes is a little activity or airflow to kick these allergens and pollutants back up into the air where they can make it into your lungs. But if you make it a habit of cleaning your house and furniture carefully, you can prevent irritating particulates from accumulating and contaminating the air in your house.
The most important areas to clean are your floors and upholstered furniture. Start by dusting any counters, shelves and other horizontal surfaces and then vacuum your couches, carpets, and rugs.
Hardwood floors are much easier to clean and don't hold on to tiny particles like fabrics do. If you have the choice, avoid carpeting your floors and decorating with fabrics like curtains and rugs. If you do, make sure to wash all your fabrics regularly and steam clean your carpets at least once or twice a year.
Get Your Home Inspected
Asbestos, mold, and radon gas are common household pollutants that are difficult to find and address without professional help. But, if left un-managed, they can cause serious symptoms and health problems.
Despite having been banned because of its dangerous respiratory effects, many houses still have asbestos to this day. It was a common component in a variety of building materials that were still in use in the very recent past, including attic insulation, flooring, roof shingles, and certain types of paint.
Radon gas, on the other hand, is a colorless, odorless gas that comes from contaminated soil and is sometimes found around houses. It is one of the leading causes of lung cancer in the US, and hiring an inspector is the only way to find out if it's there.
Most home inspectors offer a variety of different services, including radon, asbestos, and mold testing. If you have COPD, you should definitely consider hiring a professional inspector to check your house for the presence of these and other harmful chemicals that could make your disease worse.
The EPA recommends that all households have their homes inspected for Radon gas, and recommends mold and asbestos inspections before doing any kind of home renovation. This is especially important to do if you live an older house, or if you notice worsened respiratory symptoms when you're at home.
Avoid Household Products and Chemicals That Contain Respiratory Irritants
Many cleaning products, paints, and varnishes contain chemicals that cause respiratory irritation. These products can be particularly irritating to people with COPD, which is why doctors recommend that patients enlist help rather than use these products themselves.
If possible, it's better to have friends, family, or hired help do any heavy cleaning that requires bleach, ammonia, or other noxious-smelling products. For everyday cleaning, avoid irritating your lungs by switching to milder, natural cleaning products that don't contain inflammatory chemicals.
Many people with COPD find that other scented products, like perfumes, hairsprays, antiperspirants, and other hair and skin-care products make their COPD symptoms worse. Luckily, if you find that fragrant products irritate your airways, you can almost always find unscented alternatives. If you are very sensitive, you might need to ask others who visit or live in your home to use unscented products as well.
Living with COPD requires taking on a lot of extra responsibility for your health and lifestyle. Part of that responsibility is creating a healthy living environment, which includes paying attention to the air quality in your home.
Proper HVAC filtration and ventilation are key, since closed indoor HVAC systems tend to circulate the same irritants and pollutants over and over. You should also pay attention to humidity, check for mold, and get your home inspected for toxic gases and asbestos.
But what takes the most work is regular, thorough cleaning and keeping outdoor contaminants out of your home. It takes time and effort to build the right habits, but it's an effort that truly pays off.
Chances are, you won't be able to do all of this on your own. You might need to ask for help from friends, family members, or professionals in order to thoroughly rid your home of respiratory irritants and allergens. But if you cover all of these bases keep up healthy habits, you'll be able to make the air in your home significantly cleaner and safer for your lungs.
Now that you know all about indoor air quality and how it affects your COPD, don't hesitate to put these ideas into practice. Keeping your lungs healthy and protecting them from irritants should be a first priority, and you should never let poor air quality affect your comfort in your own home.