WebMD Health - Home and Health

Apr 13, 2010 5:23 PM

Avoid Bad Air Days: Eliminating Indoor Allergens

You may be having a bad air day every day -- and we are not talking about outdoor air. The indoor air quality in your home may be affecting your health and the health of your family members.

"Indoor air quality can be worse than outdoor air quality in almost every case," says William J. Calhoun, MD, professor of medicine and vice chair of the department of medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

There are potential sources of air pollution in just about every room of your house, but don't despair. The good news is that there are easy, and affordable, solutions for most of them.

What could be polluting the air in your home? The pollutants that lurk outdoors can be found indoors as well, where they can and do join forces with other irritants. Those can include fumes from combustion devices and gas-fired appliances, not to mention allergens such as pet dander, house dust mites, and mold, Calhoun says.

Space heaters, ranges, ovens, stoves, furnaces, fireplaces, and water heaters "release gases and particulates into the air," Calhoun adds. "There is also the fairly intense burden of allergens with indoor air quality such as pets, house dust mites. And perennial (year-long) allergens are 10- to 100-fold higher indoors than out."

Bad air can trigger coughing, chest tightness, sore throat, watery or itchy eyes, shortness of breath, and even a full-blown asthma attack. "If you live in a home with chronically poor air quality, you can experience frequent headaches, long lasting colds, and bronchitis as well as chronic asthma," says E. Neil Schachter, MD, the medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

3 Steps to Better Indoor Air Quality

Step 1: Increase ventilation in your house. "We tend to keep our windows tightly shut in the winter, but flinging open a window is not the answer," says Schachter. "Outdoor air contains by-products of gas emissions from cars and trucks, industrial pollution, as well as dirt and mold."

Best solution? "Use trickle ventilation, which is a 10-inch high screen with extra filters," he says. "It adjusts to most windows and allows fresh air in, helps escort indoor pollutants out."

Step 2: Turn on the AC. Use an air conditioner in the summer, Schachter says. "Many pollutants are water-soluble, and as air conditioners remove water from the atmosphere, they remove these pollutants," he tells WebMD. "Air conditioners also remove pollen and particulate matter."

Step 3: Install a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. You can make the air conditioner even more effective with a disposable HEPA filter, says Schachter.

Stand-alone HEPA air cleaners are another option for cleaning the air in a single room. If they use a fan to draw in the air, they can be noisy, however.

It's less clear how effective electronic air cleaners are since there is no standard measurement for their effectiveness. Also, electronic cleaners may not be effective at removing large air particles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Indoor Air Pollution: Irritating Gasses

Do you cook with a natural gas or propane stove? "Get the gas jets cleaned and serviced annually by a technician who can adjust the metering so that the gas burns cleanly," Calhoun says. This is important for all gas-run appliances.

"In the kitchen, the stove emits nitrogen dioxide, one of the most irritating gases, and when combined with sunlight, produces ozone," says Schachter. "This gas is so irritating that at higher levels can cause wheezing in people who don't have asthma."

Simple solution? If you have a gas stove, keep the kitchen window open a bit or turn on the fan hood to avoid nitrogen dioxide buildup, he suggests.

Particles in the Air

Cleaning regularly is a good way to keep your indoor air irritant-free, right? Wrong! It can actually make things worse unless you choose your cleaning products wisely.

Some cleaning products, including those with chlorine and ammonia, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some paints, shellacs, and floor polishes may also contain VOCs. The compounds then go into the air as gases.

You can cut down on VOCs by choosing products that say "low VOC" or "no VOC" or buying fragrance-free cleaners. Harold S. Nelson, MD, professor of medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, advises considering liquids or pastes instead of sprays for cleaning because they disperse fewer particles into the air.

VOCs aren't the only particles affecting air quality. Mold spores that start off in a damp basement can float up into the rest of the house. "Areas of leakage and dampness should be addressed throughout the house," Nelson says.

Cleaning Indoor Air: Pet Allergies

If you have pets that you love, but you also have pet allergies, there are some ways to improve the air you breathe. "Keep the pet outside or at the very least outside of your bedroom," Calhoun says. "Just reducing the allergen burden in the bedroom will likely have some benefit because we spend eight hours in the bedroom a night."

Bathing your pet regularly can also reduce allergen burden, according to Calhoun.

Better Air Quality Indoors: Evicting Dust Mites

There are the pets we love and invite into our homes and beds, and then there are those uninvited guests like house dust mites.

These creepy, crawly microscopic critters are the most common cause of allergies from house dust. They can be found where you sleep (your pillows and mattresses), where you relax (upholstered furniture), and where you walk (your carpeting). What's more, they float into the air when you vacuum, walk on a carpet, or ruffle your bedding.

What can you do? Plenty!

Dust mites love humid air, so keep house humidity below 30 or 35 percent. "House dust mites don't tolerate dryness well, so you don't want to run a humidifier in the bedroom to encourage their growth if you are allergic," Nelson says.

Air conditioning can keep humidity down and reduce dust mite allergens tenfold. If you don't have air conditioning, try a dehumidifier. You can measure humidity with a hygrometer, available at hardware stores.

Impermeable covers on mattresses and pillows can also help keep these unwanted guests off your bedding. Wash bedding (and washable stuffed toys) once a week in hot water and dry them thoroughly.

Reduce dust by dusting often with a damp (not dry) cloth or dust mop. Vacuum upholstered furniture, drapes, and rugs thoroughly once a week, preferably with a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Better yet, remove wall-to-wall carpeting and large area rugs, especially in the bedroom. "These can be havens for dust mites," Calhoun says. "We don't like to get out of bed and have our feet hit a hard wood floor, but a smooth, hard surface is best if you are sensitive to dust mites."

Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke from tobacco is a huge indoor air offender, experts say. "In terms of irritants, tobacco smoke is a threat to everyone," Nelson says. "Passive smoke is a risk factor for asthma in children and increases the possibility of a non-smoker developing lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease." This long-term lung disease, also called COPD, includes both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

The solution is simple: Just say no to smoking in your home. If guests must smoke, ask them to go outside.

Improving Indoor Air Quality Really Works

"The good news is that this stuff is proven to work," Schachter says. "By increasing ventilation and avoiding use of irritating substances, you will lower levels of known irritants. Some symptoms such as headache and sore throat will go away quickly, while others -- such as asthma-like wheezing -- can take a while to disappear as the airways become less reactive."

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