How the environment can make your child’s asthma worse

As the season changes, many children may experience problems with their asthma. There are things you can do to reduce your child’s risk of an asthma attack caused by environmental exposures. Read on for information about this topic:

What is asthma?
Asthma is a disease of the small airways in the lungs, characterized by a response to certain conditions (“triggers”) that can result in inflammation, ultimately making it harder to breathe. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, or an asthma attack severe enough to send your child to the emergency room. Asthma is a chronic illness, meaning that it is impossible to cure, but there are measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of serious problems.

What are “asthma triggers?”
An asthma trigger is something in the environment that can make asthma worse. Common triggers include pet fur, dust mites, cockroaches, grass, cigarette smoke, indoor air contaminants, and air pollution. According to the US EPA, “Outdoor air pollution is caused by small particles and ground level ozone that comes from car exhaust, smoke, road dust and factory emissions. Particle pollution can be high any time of year and is higher near busy roads and where people burn wood.” Indoor air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides from your gas stove, chemicals in new furniture or carpeting, and mold overgrowth can also make asthma worse.

How can I help my child avoid outdoor asthma triggers?

• Know the Air Quality Index in your area. Communities of >300,000 residents are required to publish the daily air quality index. You can find out the AQI in your area by going here:

• If exercise makes your child’s asthma worse, he or she should still exercise to stay healthy and fit but might need to take more frequent breaks and sit down if it becomes hard to breathe. Children with severe asthma may need to limit their time outdoors on days when the AQI is > 100.

• Use your air conditioner to help filter the air coming into the home, and consider staying inside with the windows closed on high pollen and high AQI days.

What can I do to make my home as trigger-free as possible?
• Nobody should smoke near your child or in the child’s house. People who do smoke should change their clothes when they enter the house to stop the smoke fumes attached to clothing from getting near your child.

• Make sure your home is well ventilated. This will reduce fumes from gas stoves, wood stoves, paints, or exhausts.

• Clean up wet areas in your home quickly, since mold loves to grow in cool, moist areas. If your house has mold overgrowth, it should be cleaned and removed.

• Carpeting should be cleaned frequently, as dust and other airborne particles can stick to it and stay around. Removing carpeting and replacing it with wood or tile floors is even safer!

• Make sure your house’s air filter is clean and working properly.

• Cockroaches and rodents are common triggers, so remove spills and crumbs quickly, and keep all counters and floors clean.

• Some asthma is made worse by cat or dog hair, so you may need to minimize your child’s exposure to pets.

• Some common household products (pesticides, cosmetics, air fresheners, etc.) may leave behind airborne residue, so avoid spraying these heavily.

References and more Information:
“Common Asthma Triggers?” Centers for Disease Control
“Reduce Asthma Triggers.” American Lung Association

“Asthma Triggers and Management: Tips to Remember” American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology

“Environmental Management of Pediatric Asthma: Guidelines for Health Care Providers” National Environmental Education Foundation

“Asthma Triggers: Gain Control” Environmental Protection Agency

March 2015. This post was authored by Scott Resnick, University of Illinois at Chicago medical student and Susan Buchanan, MD, MPH, Director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health – Region 5 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU).


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