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How Indoor Air Quality Can Exacerbate Asthma

Learn how indoor air quality affects asthma symptoms and discover steps to improve your air quality for better asthma management and quality of life.

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects millions of people around the world, and approximately 8.3% of Americans have asthma. One of the less-known factors that can exacerbate this condition is the quality of indoor air. In fact, the role that indoor air quality plays in asthma management is significant. This article explores the link between air quality and asthma, providing insights into how indoor air quality (IAQ) can create an unhealthy environment that is especially harmful for those who suffer from this respiratory condition.

A Brief Overview of Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung disease characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs. The inflammation also makes the airways overly sensitive and react strongly to certain triggers. During an asthma flare-up (or attack), the symptoms worsen, including:

  • Wheezing: A high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe
  • Coughing: May be worse at night or after exercise
  • Shortness of breath: Feeling like you can’t get a full breath
  • Chest tightness: Feeling of pressure or constriction in the chest

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes asthma as a major noncommunicable disease that affects people of all ages worldwide. Asthma often starts in childhood and ranges from mild to severe, with symptoms varying over time.  According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), over 25 million Americans have asthma, including more than 5 million children.

Why Asthma is a Problem

Asthma is a major health concern, not simply an inconvenience.  Globally, it affects millions of people. In the United States alone, the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) estimates it leads to:

  • Over 900,000 emergency department visits annually
  • More than 3,500 deaths each year

Asthma’s severity ranges from mild to life-threatening.  Attacks can be unpredictable and strike suddenly, significantly disrupting daily life.  For those with severe asthma, the constant threat can impact their emotional well-being in addition to their physical health.

Who Suffers From Asthma?

Asthma can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or background. However, certain groups are at higher risk:

  • Children: Asthma is the most common chronic disease among children. The American Lung Association reports that over 5.5 million children in the US have asthma.
  • Adults: While less commonly diagnosed in adulthood, many adults live with asthma.
  • Racial/Ethnic Minorities: Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native populations often experience higher rates of asthma and more severe symptoms.
  • People with Allergies: Those with allergies to dust mites, pollen, mold, etc., are more likely to develop asthma.
  • People with Occupational Exposures: Exposure to certain chemicals and irritants in the workplace triggers or worsens asthma.

See also7 Famous People Who Struggle With Asthma

What Causes Asthma?

While the exact cause of asthma remains unknown, researchers believe it results from a complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors. Here’s a breakdown of what we do know:

  • Genetics: If you have a family history of asthma or allergies, you’re more likely to develop asthma yourself. Certain genes might increase your airways’ sensitivity to triggers.
  • Environmental Triggers: Exposure to various irritants and allergens can trigger asthma symptoms in those who are already susceptible. Common triggers include:
    • Airborne Irritants: Smoke (tobacco, wood, etc.), dust mites, pet dander, mold, chemicals, strong odors, and air pollution.
    • Respiratory Infections: Viral infections like the common cold or flu can worsen asthma symptoms.
    • Allergens: Pollen, certain foods, cockroach droppings.
    • Exercise: While exercise is beneficial, strenuous activity can trigger symptoms in some people.
    • Weather Changes: Sudden changes in temperature, humidity, or strong winds can make asthma worse.
    • Other Factors: Stress, strong emotions, certain medications

What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?

Common symptoms of asthma include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness or pain. However, it’s important to note that these symptoms can vary from person to person and may not be present all the time. If your doctor suspects asthma, they may recommend breathing tests (also called lung function tests) to help make a diagnosis.

The Role of Indoor Air Quality in Asthma

The quality of the air we breathe indoors has an impact on lung health, and this impact is especially pronounced for those with asthma. Indoor air pollutants such as dust mites, pet dander, mold spores, and tobacco smoke irritate the airways and lungs.

While everyone is susceptible to the ill effects of poor indoor air quality, people with asthma often experience more severe reactions and worsening of their symptoms. Let’s delve deeper into how specific indoor air pollutants affect asthmatics and worsen asthma.

Are Dust Mites Making Your Asthma Worse?

Dust mites are microscopic creatures belonging to the arachnid family (related to spiders and ticks). While they don’t bite, their droppings and body fragments contain proteins that are major triggers for asthma and allergy sufferers. These tiny creatures thrive in warm, humid environments, commonly found in:

  • Bedding: Mattresses, pillows, comforters, and blankets
  • Upholstered Furniture: Sofas, chairs, and stuffed toys
  • Carpets and Rugs

How Dust Mites Affect Asthma

People with asthma have sensitive airways. When they inhale dust mite allergens, it can cause inflammation in these airways, leading to:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Asthma attacks

The Impact of Dust Mite Sensitivity

Research highlights the significant connection between dust mite allergies and asthma. A study in the Egyptian Journal of Bronchology revealed these important findings:

  • Asthma Phenotype: Dust mite sensitization is primarily linked to a cough-predominant form of asthma and allergic rhinitis (nasal allergies).
  • Asthma Severity: Sensitivity to dust mites can worsen asthma and make symptoms harder to control.
  • The Importance of Testing: Skin testing for allergies is highly recommended for asthma patients, especially those struggling with uncontrolled symptoms.
  • Early Intervention: Prompt diagnosis and reduction of exposure to allergens, like dust mites, is vital to protect lung health.
  • Immunotherapy: For those with severe dust mite allergies, immunotherapy might be an option to reduce symptoms and improve asthma control.

Controlling Dust Mites for Better Asthma Management

While it’s impossible to eradicate dust mites completely, you can make your home less hospitable to them:

  • Humidity Control: Maintain humidity levels below 50% using a dehumidifier or air conditioner.
  • Bedding Care: Wash sheets, pillowcases, and blankets weekly in hot water (at least 130°F or 60°C). Consider encasing mattresses and pillows in dust-proof covers. Avoid using second-hand mattresses if you can.
  • Flooring: If possible, replace carpets with hard flooring like wood, vinyl, or laminate. These materials are easier to clean and less hospitable to dust mites. Vacuum regularly with a HEPA filter, and steam clean carpets periodically. If you rent, you could discuss with your landlord the possibility of replacing the carpets.
  • Upholstered Furniture: Choose furnishings made of leather, wood, plastic, or vinyl, as they are easier to clean. Vacuum upholstered items regularly.
  • Temperature Control: Dust mites thrive in temperatures between 75 ° F and 80° F. Keep your home cooler if possible.
  • Stuffed animals: Wash stuffed toys and dolls in hot water to kill dust mites.  If possible, keep them out of the bedroom. Alternatively, freeze them to kill dust mites.

How Pet Dander Affects Asthma

Pet dander, or the tiny flakes of skin shed by animals, can also trigger asthma symptoms. Reducing exposure can involve regular vacuuming, keeping pets outdoors when possible, and restricting pets from certain areas of the home.

For a deeper dive into how pets can affect your indoor air environment, check out this resource on Pets and Indoor Air Quality.

The Dangers of Mold for Asthmatics

Mold spores are another trigger for asthma. As Dr. Michele Columbo of Main Line Health explains in an interview with Health Central: “Many people with asthma have a mold allergy, so their immune system perceives mold to be dangerous.” This allergic reaction can further worsen asthma symptoms.

Molds thrive in damp environments and are found in bathrooms, kitchens, and basements. To prevent mold growth, it’s important to fix any leaks promptly, ensure proper ventilation in damp areas, and consult the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) detailed guide on moisture control.

Want to learn more about mold?  Check out these resources:

How Tobacco Smoke Worsens Asthma – And What To Do

Tobacco smoke is one of the most dangerous indoor air pollutants, significantly harming people with asthma.  Even secondhand smoke exposure can be a major problem. Here’s why it’s so dangerous:

  • Airway Damage: Smoke irritates airways, causing swelling, narrowing, and increased mucus production. It even damages cilia, the tiny hairs that help clear your lungs, making breathing difficult.
  • Trigger Central: Smoke contains numerous asthma triggers, leading to wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and full-blown attacks. This is true for both firsthand and secondhand smoke exposure.
  • Long-Term Damage: Over time, studies show that smoke weakens lung function (even after quitting), increases asthma severity, and makes it harder to control symptoms. Children are especially vulnerable, as their lungs are still developing.
  • The Numbers Don’t Lie: Secondhand smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are toxic and many cancer-causing.

What To Do

  • Quitting is Best: If you smoke, quitting offers immense benefits. Within weeks, your circulation and lung function start to improve. There are many resources to help (your doctor, quitlines, etc.).
  • Strict Smoke-Free Home: Even smoking outdoors leaves harmful residue indoors. A total ban protects everyone, especially those with asthma. Explain this caringly to loved ones who smoke.
  • Advocate Beyond Your Walls: Support smoke-free policies in workplaces, restaurants, and public spaces. This protects all asthmatics from secondhand smoke exposure and helps reduce smoking overall.

Important Notes:

E-cigarettes: While less harmful than traditional smoking, they’re not risk-free and can still worsen asthma.

VOCs and Asthma: A Dangerous Connection

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a serious threat to asthma sufferers. These common indoor air pollutants irritate the airways, worsening symptoms like wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Over time, some asthmatics become even more sensitive to VOCs, meaning even low levels can trigger attacks.

High VOC levels directly contribute to poor indoor air quality, a major risk factor for both developing asthma and making existing asthma harder to control.  Prolonged exposure can lead to more frequent flare-ups and increased reliance on medication.

Sources of VOCs

Common sources of VOCs in homes include:

  • Paints and varnishes
  • Cleaning and disinfecting chemicals
  • Air fresheners and scented candles
  • Building materials and furnishings
  • Cosmetics and personal care products

Managing VOC Exposure for Asthma Sufferers

Here’s some practical tips on how to reduce VOCs in your home for asthma management:

  • Ventilation: Increase ventilation during and after activities that release VOCs, such as painting or cleaning. Open windows or use exhaust fans to dilute indoor air with fresh outdoor air.
  • Low-VOC Products: Choose low-VOC or VOC-free paints, finishes, and cleaning products. Many brands now offer alternatives specifically designed to reduce indoor air pollution.
  • Avoid Aerosols and Fragrances: Aerosol sprays and scented products often contain high levels of VOCs. Opt for unscented or natural alternatives when possible.
  • Regular Maintenance: Regularly maintain HVAC systems and use air purifiers with HEPA filters and activated carbon to reduce airborne pollutants, including VOCs.
  • Mindful Purchasing: Be cautious when buying new furniture, carpets, or building materials, as these can emit VOCs for months after installation. Look for products certified for low chemical emissions.

The Impact of Climate Change on Air Quality and Asthma

Climate change has a significant impact on air quality, which in turn can worsen asthma symptoms and increase the risk of asthma attacks. Here are some ways climate change can affect people with asthma:

  • Increased ground-level ozone: Warmer temperatures contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, a major lung irritant that triggers asthma attacks.
  • More frequent wildfires: Climate change creates conditions that lead to more frequent and intense wildfires. Wildfire smoke contains harmful pollutants that irritate the airways and worsen asthma symptoms.
  • Longer allergy seasons: Rising temperatures can lead to longer pollen seasons and higher pollen counts, triggering allergy symptoms that can worsen asthma.
  • Increased mold growth: More frequent extreme weather events like floods can create damp conditions that promote mold growth, another asthma trigger.

These factors combine to create a challenging environment for people with asthma. It’s important to stay informed about air quality forecasts and take steps to protect yourself, such as staying indoors on high ozone days and following your doctor’s asthma management plan.

How to Monitor Air Quality

Monitoring local air quality can be a helpful tool for managing asthma. Certain websites and apps provide real-time updates on air quality, using a scale that ranges from good to hazardous. On days when air pollution levels are high, it may be advisable for people with asthma to limit their time outdoors and avoid strenuous physical activity.

Taking control of your asthma starts with knowing your environment. Many resources offer real-time air quality updates with easy-to-understand scales (like “good” to “hazardous”). Consider using a reputable air quality app to stay informed about local conditions.

Look for information on specific pollutants like ozone, particulate matter (especially PM2.5), and allergens like pollen, as these are major asthma triggers.  If pollution levels are high, it’s wise to limit outdoor time and avoid strenuous activity.  If you’re concerned about the air quality inside your home, consider indoor air quality testing or exploring indoor air quality products to improve your breathing environment.

Some air quality monitors are even designed for specific spaces, like workplaces or industrial settings.  By being proactive and monitoring air quality, you can make informed decisions to manage your asthma better.


While there is no cure for asthma, understanding and managing triggers, including poor indoor air quality, is crucial for managing the condition. By prioritizing the cleanliness of your indoor environment, monitoring outdoor air quality, and being aware of how air pollution affects asthma, you can take proactive steps to improve your symptoms and overall quality of life.

In a world where the quality of the air we breathe is increasingly under threat, this knowledge is more important than ever for those with asthma.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have questions about how air quality impacts asthma? Get quick and helpful answers below:

Does fresh air help asthma?

Yes! Replacing stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air (when outdoor air quality is good) can be helpful.

How do you purify the air for asthma?

Use a HEPA air purifier, open windows for ventilation (if outdoor air is clean), and address sources of indoor pollution.

Is a fan good for asthma?

A fan alone doesn’t improve air quality. It might circulate dust or pollen, potentially worsening symptoms.

Is an air purifier good for asthmatics?

Yes! Air purifiers with HEPA filters can significantly reduce asthma triggers indoors.

Can plants improve indoor air quality for asthma sufferers?

Plants can improve air quality to some extent, but soil can harbor mold, a potential asthma trigger. Choose plants carefully and monitor for reactions.

Is it necessary to use air purifiers for asthma?

While not strictly necessary, air purifiers are a valuable tool for managing asthma, especially if other measures to improve air quality aren’t enough.

Gideon Rubin

Gideon Rubin is the CEO and co-founder of YourIAQ and Sensables, where he leads strategy and business development. He previously co-founded Pandio and Local Data Exchange, and held c-level roles at NavAds and Local Market Launch. Gideon is an experienced entrepreneur focused on building organizations that use data, AI, and machine learning to solve complex problems and change lives.