Breathing Easier: Understanding Indoor Air Quality and Asthma

The quality of the air we breathe can have a serious impact on our health. The effects of indoor air pollutants can be immediate, or may show up years later. Such effects range from minor irritation to serious respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

People with asthma are among those with a higher risk for complications caused by poor air quality. Asthma is a condition in which the tubes (called airways) that carry air to a person's lungs narrow, swell, and/or produce extra mucus. This makes it difficult to breathe and may cause the person to cough or wheeze. According to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 400,000 people in Alabama currently have asthma.

The week of May 6-10, 2024, is Air Quality Awareness Week. It's the perfect time to look at how air quality, particularly the air in our homes, can impact our health.

The Basics of Indoor Air Quality

"We spend 90 percent of our lives indoors," said Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor at Harvard University and the director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings Program. "And the reality is that indoor air pollutants can be 3, 5, 10 times higher than outdoor air pollution, which I think surprises most people."

Allen, speaking on the Harvard School of Public Health's "Better Off" podcast, talked about how the design of offices, apartment buildings, and other indoor environments changed during the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Buildings became "tighter" by design in the effort to save energy on heating and cooling. This approach soon led to "sick-building syndrome," which refers to symptoms like headaches and muddled thinking related to the lack of fresh air due to poor ventilation.

Indoor air quality is directly affected by the presence and amount of indoor pollution sources. When there's not enough outside air coming in to either dilute the amount of pollutants or to carry them out of the area, the air quality suffers. Heat and humidity levels can also increase the concentration of pollutants in the air.

Some common indoor pollutant sources include:

  • Mold
  • Dust mites
  • Tobacco and vape smoke
  • Excess moisture
  • Household cleaning products
  • New flooring, carpet, or upholstery
  • Smoke from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces
  • Outside sources such as pesticides

High levels of air pollution can harm anyone. Certain groups of people are at risk even if the levels of air pollution are low. These groups include:

  • People with lung disease
  • People with heart disease
  • Individuals who are pregnant and their fetuses
  • Senior adults
  • People who work outside

Because people with asthma already have difficulty with their airways, the irritation caused by poor air quality can make their condition worse. In fact, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) states that air pollution can not only worsen asthma, but cause asthma and other lung diseases in previously healthy people.

Respiratory infections such as flu, pneumonia, croup, and the common cold are also common asthma triggers that can be reduced by improving the ventilation and air filtration in your home.

Take Steps to Assess and Improve Air Quality in Your Home

There are many steps you can take to improve the air quality in your home, including:

  • Do not vape or smoke tobacco products in your home.
  • Avoid using scented candles or odor-hiding fragrances.
  • Leave interior doors open and run exhaust fans to improve air flow.
  • Clean regularly to remove dust, pollen, mold, and animal dander.
  • Maintain your HVAC system and replace air filters as recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Add properly-sized portable air cleaners or air purifiers to the rooms where you spend the most time. If it's not feasible to buy one, you can even build a do-it-yourself air purifier as a cost-effective way to reduce pollutants in the air.

Visit the AAFA to learn more about improving your home's air quality.

If You Have Asthma....or Think You Have Asthma

Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. They may show up at random times. They may happen only during specific times, like when you are exercising or working. Some people experience asthma symptoms all the time.

If you experience any of the following, we recommend you consult your doctor to explore the possibility that you may have asthma:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Wheezing when breathing out (a common sign of asthma in children)
  • Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by illness such as cold or flu

Unfortunately, severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening, so work closely with your doctor to monitor your symptoms and adjust your treatment when needed.