cleaning with copd

Images by Pichamon Chamroenrak

Having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can affect all areas of your day-to-day life. This can include activities you might not expect — like cleaning your home. Many people prefer to have a tidy home simply out of personal preference. But when you’re living with COPD, the level of cleanliness at home can impact your health.

The simplest solution may seem to clean more frequently, but COPD comes along with a unique set of challenges in this arena. Many conventional cleaning products often contain scents and give off toxic vapors. This can exacerbate the condition.

For those who already have COPD, it’s not always clear how to minimize environmental dangers without making things worse.

Here’s what experts have to say about the biggest household risks, how to reduce them, and how to protect yourself from COPD attacks when you really need to clean.

Why a clean home is so important

The cleanliness of your home is a major factor in determining indoor air quality. And maintaining good air quality is crucial to avoid COPD episodes and flare-ups.

“Many things can impact our indoor air quality: dust and dust mites, pets, smoking indoors, cleaning solutions, room fresheners and candles, just to name a few,” says Stephanie Williams, a respiratory therapist and director of community programs at the COPD Foundation.

“These types of contaminants can have a negative impact on someone with COPD, because they can cause problems like increased mucus production, making it difficult to clear the airway, or they can cause the person to feel like it is hard to catch their breath because their airways begin to spasm,” Williams tells Healthline.

The repercussions of not dealing with these common household contaminants can be serious. “We’ve had patients come to the hospital, recover enough to go home, and then some trigger in their home environment causes them to have an exacerbation and have to go back to the hospital for treatment again,” Williams notes.

By keeping your home clean, the chances of irritation are lower.

How to keep common indoor air pollutants at bay

Before you do any actual cleaning, there are some important ways you can set yourself up for success and minimize the amount of work you need to do. Here are some of the most triggering air pollutants found in homes, plus how to reduce their presence.

Tobacco smoke

There’s not a lot of research available on how different types of air pollutants specifically affect people with COPD. But one thing that’s been confirmed is that cigarette smoke is very harmful to people with COPD, in part because of the particle pollution it produces.

Particles are often microscopic. They’re byproducts of burning substances or other chemical processes, which can be inhaled into the lungs and cause irritation. Sometimes particles are large enough to be visible, such as in the cases of dust and soot.

“Don’t allow smoking indoors at all,” advises Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy at the American Lung Association. “There are no good ways of getting rid of smoke, and it’s harmful in multiple ways. It not only creates a lot of particles, but also gases and toxins that are truly lethal.”

Sometimes people think allowing others to smoke in just one room of the home is a good work-around. Unfortunately, this isn’t a viable solution. Nolen emphasizes that zero smoking in the home environment is one of the most important things you can do to improve your home’s air quality.

Nitrogen dioxide

Exposure to nitrogen dioxide emissions is another recognized issue for people with COPD. These emissions can come from natural gas. “If you have a natural gas stove and you’re cooking on the stove, it’s giving off nitrogen dioxide emissions, as would a gas fireplace,” Nolen explains.

Adequate ventilation in your kitchen is the best way to remedy this. “Make sure you’ve got the kitchen well-ventilated, so that anything coming off the stove — whether it’s nitrogen dioxide or the particles that are created when you’re frying something — is pulled out of the house,” Nolen advises.

Pet dander

Pet dander isn’t necessarily an issue for all people living with COPD. But if you also have allergies, it might be. “Having pet dander (i.e. from cats or dogs) may exacerbate COPD symptoms,” explains Michelle Fanucchi, PhD, associate professor of environmental health science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Regularly cleaning the surfaces, furniture, and linens in your home can help reduce pet dander.

Dust and dust mites

Dust can be especially irritating to people with COPD who have allergies. In addition to keeping home surfaces free from dust, experts also recommend minimizing carpeting in your home.

“Whenever possible, removing carpet from homes is best,” Williams says. “It reduces the environment that dust mites love and makes it easier to see and remove pet hair and other dirt from the floor.”

If it’s not possible to do away with carpeting, vacuum daily with a vacuum cleaner that has an air filter to reduce the mites and other irritants found in carpet.

Dust mites also make themselves at home in bed linens. Keeping them clean should be a priority. Nolen recommends washing sheets in hot water and replacing pillows more frequently.

Humidity

Many people don’t consider that the humidity level in their home could be an irritant. “Keeping the humidity below 50 percent in the home is a good way of helping to control not only mold, but also things like dust mites,” Nolen explains. “Dust mites grow really well where it’s very humid.”

Control this by simply using the exhaust ventilation in your bathroom during and after use, provided that the vent sends damp air outside of the home and doesn’t simply recirculate it. If you don’t have ventilation in your bathroom, you may want to consider installing it, Nolen says.

COPD checklist: Minimize indoor air pollutants

  • Stick to a no-smoking policy in your home.
  • Use powerful kitchen ventilation to minimize nitrogen dioxide and food particles.
  • Regularly clean surfaces, furniture, and linens to minimize pet dander.
  • Trade carpets for hardwood floors whenever possible.
  • Always turn on the bathroom fan to reduce humidity.

Tips for cleaning your home

Once you’ve taken measures to minimize the amount of potential irritants in your home, it’s time for the actual cleaning. Here’s what you need to know to clean your home safely.

Stick with the basics

For people with COPD, the safest cleaning product options are actually the most traditional ones. “Some of the stuff our grandparents used actually still works very effectively,” Nolen explains.

“White vinegar, methylated spirits [denatured alcohol], lemon juice, and baking soda are all good household cleaners which normally don’t cause reactions in respiratory patients,” says Russell Winwood of COPD Athlete.

“Combining boiling water and either white vinegar, methylated spirits, or lemon juice can provide a good floor cleaner and degreaser,” he says. These mixtures are also suitable for cleaning the bathroom and kitchen.

Winwood also recommends soda water as a stain remover for carpets and household fabrics. He suggests using white vinegar to neutralize odors.

Nolen recommends a mixture of vinegar and water for cleaning mirrors and windows and plain dishwashing soap and water to clean other household surfaces.

COPD checklist: Cleaning products to use

  • For a floor cleaner and bathroom and kitchen degreaser, combine boiling water with one of the following: white vinegar, methylated spirits, lemon juice
  • For a safe stain remover, use soda water.

Store-bought cleaning products

If you are going to buy cleaning products at the store — something many COPD experts advise against — opt for unscented products whenever possible, Williams recommends.

While “natural” cleaning products (like the ones marked as “Safer Choice” by the Environmental Protection Agency) are generally better options than standard grocery store products, experts say they can be difficult to recommend to people with COPD.

“The tricky thing about COPD is that not everyone has the same triggers, so I cannot say that natural products are safe for everyone with COPD,” Williams says.

“There may be someone who has a sensitivity to even a natural substance, but in general, if people use vinegar solutions or citrus solutions to clean their homes, those are often less problematic than harsh chemicals.” - Williams

It’s also important to look out for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) if you’re using store-bought cleaning products.

“You can find VOCs on the long list of ingredients on a product you are buying at the grocery store, often ending in -ene,” Nolen says. “These have chemicals in them that give off gases when you use them at home, and those gases can irritate the lungs and cause difficulty breathing.”

Lastly, it’s best to avoid any products that contain the common cleaning ingredients ammonia and bleach. “These have a very strong odor and are known to cause shortness of breath,” Winwood says.

COPD Checklist: Ingredients to avoid

  • fragrances
  • ammonia
  • bleach
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which often end in -ene
  • products marked “Safer Choice” may still be triggers — vinegar and citrus solutions are best

Recruit some help

It’s not always possible to have someone else clean your home. But if this option is available to you, it’s a good idea. “I would suggest that a caregiver do the bulk of the cleaning and keep the COPD patient away from the cleaning products as much as possible,” Fanucchi says.

While some people with COPD don’t have much issue cleaning on their own, it varies from person to person. “I’ve had patients who haven’t been able to tolerate the scent or fragrance from any type of cleaning product or even laundry supplies,” Williams says. “For people who have severe reactions to these types of products, it is best if someone else can do the cleaning while they are out of the house or when the windows can be opened and air can circulate well.”

It’s also recommended, according to Winwood, that vacuuming be performed by another family member or a professional cleaner. The dust collected in the vacuum cleaner doesn’t always stay there, and could cause irritation.

Try a face mask

“If there’s no way around a specific product of concern, you can use an N95 respirator face mask,” Fanucchi suggests. “An N95 mask is rated to block 95 percent of very small particles.”

It’s important to note, though, that the N95 mask increases the work of breathing, so it may not be a viable option for all people with COPD.

Use a particle filter

If you live in an area with high air pollution, using a particle filter is one way to improve the air quality in your home. “Air purifiers that use high-efficiency particle [HEPA] filters are good at filtering our dust, tobacco smoke, pollen, and fungal spores,” Fanucchi explains.

There’s one key caveat here, though: “Avoid air purifiers that generate ozone to clean the air,” Fanucchi recommends. “Ozone is an unstable gas that is also a component of smog. It is not healthy to generate ozone inside your home. Ozone is a respiratory toxicant and can aggravate COPD symptoms.”


Julia is a former magazine editor turned health writer and “trainer in training.” Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.