Allergens and Pollutants

If you have COPD, then you likely know to avoid the variety of triggers than could set off flair-ups or exacerbations of the disease. Besides exposure to second-hand smoke, fumes from chemicals and cleaning agents, air pollution, high ozone levels and cold air temperatures can all contribute to breathing problems. In fact, any substance that causes an allergic reaction may exacerbate your COPD symptoms.

It is impossible to know exactly how many COPD patients also have allergies, though estimates are about 20 percent. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America states that allergies affect one out of every five Americas.

COPD and Allergies

After exposure to an irritant or allergen, a person’s airways narrow making it harder to breathe. Allergic reactions can also cause an increase in mucus production, which can make breathing even more labor intensive. Because the lungs of COPD patients are often compromised (due to a variety of factors like damaged lung tissue and the destruction of the hair-like fibers called cilia that help push mucus out of the airways), a sudden increase in mucus can cause severe shortness of breath as well as anxiety.

Without knowing exactly what might cause an allergic reaction in COPD patients, the range of triggers can be vast. In addition to the common substances one might expect to be irritating, COPD patients are also advised to limit their exposure to indoor air pollution from dust mites, mold, pet dander, and waste droppings from rodents and cockroaches. National Institute of Environmental Health Scientists conducted research with several other national agencies and found that 46 percent of U.S. homes surveyed had dust mite levels high enough to produce allergic reactions.

Common Indoor Allergens

The American Association for Respiratory Care recommends limiting your exposure to indoor air pollutants, such as smoke, dust, and aerosol sprays. The following is a list of the most common indoor allergens and how to reduce your exposure.

Dust / Dust mites

Air ducts in heating and cooling systems are often dusty and can contribute to indoor air pollution, so replace filters annually. If you accumulate stacks of books and/or papers, consider paring down your collection or storing items in plastic containers to minimize dust.

Dirty Carpets/Rugs

Large rugs and wall-to-wall carpets can harbor dust and dirt and should be vacuumed regularly with a machine that uses a HEPA filter. According to Dr. Neil Schachter, Medical Director of the Respiratory Care Department of Mount Sinai Hospital and Professor of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, carpets and rugs are often overlooked as sources of allergens. “Every time you walk across a carpeted room you stir up a cloud of dust and dirt that you cannot see,” he says. Instead, Dr. Schachter recommends bare wood floors for his COPD patients because they are easy to keep clean. To further minimize exposure, COPD patients should not be in charge of housecleaning or wear an N-95 particle mask while working.

Pet Dander

Microscopic bits of skin and hair make up what is known as pet dander, a major allergen. If you have a pet, keep him/her away from your bedroom and groom him/her monthly to reduce exposure.

Mold

Examine your home from signs of mold from leaky faucets, roofs, and showerheads. Use fans to increase ventilation. If you find mold, don’t clean it yourself. Have someone else remove the mold with a bleach solution (1-cup bleach to 1-gallon of water). Some germs caused by mold can be so harmful to people with COPD that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping indoor humidity at between 40 to 60 percent and using air conditioners and/or dehumidifiers during humid months.     

Fumes

Many of today’s powerful household cleaners are mixtures that contain bleach or ammonia. Avoid using cleaning products indoors without proper ventilation, such as oven cleaner, spray polish, and/or bathroom cleaners. COPD patients should instead use green products like vinegar, baking soda, and/or a mild solution of soap and water. Even chemical fumes from dry cleaning can be irritating. Remove the plastic and air garments out before storing. 

Scented Soaps/Perfumes

Sometimes even the mild fragrances associated with toiletries can be bothersome for those suffering with COPD, especially in closed environments.

Other Considerations

The exact connections between allergies and COPD are not completely understood. Some doctors believe that respiratory allergies and asthma are early signs of COPD while others accept that COPD sometimes produces symptoms that manifest as asthma or allergies. Whatever the relationship, exposure to potential allergens should be avoided by patients with COPD, no matter if their disease is mild, moderate, or severe. 

If you have COPD and a history of allergies, your doctor may consider blood tests to determine what is causing your exacerbations. A blood test called an absolute eosinophil count can measure the number of white blood cells called eosinophils that become active if certain allergies are present.