Avoiding Allergens and Irritants

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2015. | Last updated: August 2017

Why do COPD patients need to avoid allergens and irritants?1

Learning about how to avoid allergens and irritants is an important part of the pulmonary rehabilitation program for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Allergens and irritants are tiny particles in the air that we breathe, which can worsen COPD symptoms. They can also increase the risk of COPD flare-ups, when symptoms suddenly get much worse. Flare-ups can be harmful for patients with COPD, and may even require treatment in the hospital.

COPD patients may be exposed to allergens and irritants in many different situations, including:

  • Air indoors in the home
  • Air in the workplace
  • Air outdoors

What are allergens?1,2,3

Allergens are substances that, if a person is sensitive to them, can cause allergic reactions when a person breathes them in. Not every person who has COPD is sensitive to allergens. An allergic reaction happens when the body’s response to an allergen causes:

  • Swelling in the airways
  • Increased mucus production

Both of these responses can make it harder for COPD patients to breathe. The swelling in the airways can make them even narrower, which prevents enough air from getting to the lungs. The increase in mucus also narrows the airways, because lung damage caused by COPD can make it harder to clear out the mucus. Both of these can cause shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

Common allergens include:

  • Pollen
  • Dust and dust mites
  • Pet dander
  • Mold
  • Dirty or wet rugs/carpets

Dirty or wet rugs/carpets can be a source of several of these kinds of allergens, so rugs and carpets should be cleaned regularly and thoroughly.

What are irritants?1,2,3

Irritants are different kinds of tiny particles in the air. They do not cause allergic reactions, but they can irritate the airways and affect how well a COPD patient can breathe. Just about any COPD patient can react to irritants.

Common irritants include:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Pesticides
  • Chemicals in strong cleaning products
  • Paint fumes
  • Air pollution outdoors
  • Burning fuel indoors (such as coal, wood, oil, gas, or kerosene)
  • Asbestos
  • Radon and carbon monoxide
  • Strongly scented soaps or fragrances

What are some tips for avoiding allergens and irritants indoors?1,2,4,5

One of the most important steps for avoiding allergens and irritants in the indoor air is to make sure that tobacco smoking is not ever allowed in the home. COPD patients need to avoid any exposure to tobacco smoke.

Other tips for reducing a COPD patient’s exposure to allergens and irritants include:

  • Make sure the home is well ventilated
  • Install exhaust systems to circulate air in kitchens and bathrooms
  • Use an indoor air filtration system
  • Minimize clutter in the home, which can gather dust
  • Prevent dust mites by washing bed sheets regularly in hot water
  • Keep pets well-groomed, off of the furniture and out of bedrooms
  • Regularly clean floors, carpets, and rugs
  • Inspect air conditioning and heating systems for mold and mildew; replace filters regularly
  • Have the home examined for mold
  • Use a dehumidifier to reduce humidity levels in the air
  • Use natural cleaning products, or let others do the household cleaning
  • Have the home tested for radon levels
  • Install carbon monoxide detectors
  • Make sure indoor fireplaces or woodstoves are well vented, and have chimneys cleaned and checked once a year

What are some tips for avoiding allergens and irritants outside?3,5,6

COPD patients should check the outdoor air quality every day. The amount of pollutants and irritants in the air changes on a day-to-day basis. If the outdoor air quality is bad that day, it can make COPD breathing symptoms worse. Sources of air quality information may include:

  • News reports
  • Newspapers
  • Online resources such as http://airnow.gov/ or http://www.epa.gov/

If the air quality is bad, then patients should try to stay indoors as much as possible. If patients must leave the house, then some tips for avoiding irritants include:

  • Being outside earlier in the day, rather than later
  • Keeping car windows closed
  • Wearing a mask over the nose and mouth
  • Carrying portable oxygen, if oxygen therapy has been prescribed

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