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The home environment: its impact on asthma

What happens when your home—an important sanctuary for your children—becomes unsuitable in fostering health and wellness?

by Gwen Reyes-Amurao, M.D.


The home should be a place where one can find comfort, and where harmony with other members of the family exists. But for specific health conditions such as asthma, the environment can drastically influence the body—for better or for worse.


Fighting to breathe

A chronic condition of the lungs which affects both large and small airways, asthma can be triggered by almost anything. It has three characteristics: hyperreactivity or irritability of airways, inflammation, and airway obstruction. In asthmatic patients, air passages are extremely sensitive and hyper-responsive.


Darleth Romana-Bantiles, M.D., a school physician and medical researcher, says that while asthma shares triggers with the common allergy, like pollen and dust mites, it may also be exacerbated by viral infections like the respiratory syncitial virus (RSV) or parainfluenza virus. The narrowing of airways or bronchoconstriction results after exposure to inhaled allergens and other triggers: dust mites, pollens, molds, cockroach, cat or dog allergens, vegetable proteins, viral infection, cigarette smoke, air pollutants, odors, drugs, cold air and exercise. Upon exposure, certain chemicals that influence the behavior of air passages are activated. The resulting airway narrowing explains the classic manifestation of asthma: wheezing. Because air cannot move in and out of the lungs freely, a person may experience difficulty or increased rate of breathing, hyperinflation of the chest and use of accessory breathing muscles like those in the ribcage.


In some cases, airway obstruction can develop within a matter of seconds because of sudden muscle spasm in the large airways. When an individual is in severe respiratory distress, he or she may experience shortness of breath—with or without wheezing—manifested as difficulty in talking or walking. With the premature closure of airways, exhaling becomes so difficult and labored that one can sweat profusely and even develop low-grade fever from over-fatigue. Since airflow is restricted, lung collapse or atelectasis may result in some parts of the lungs. In instances when prolonged and severe asthmatic episodes don’t respond to medications that work to open the airways—status asthmaticus—asthma becomes life-threatening and is considered a medical emergency.


Dr. Romana-Bantiles emphasizes that the child should be brought to a pulmonologist or allergologist as soon as these symptoms are linked to physical activity: wheezing, shortness of breath, complaints of chest tightness or cough that is constant or intermittent. Repeated episodes of bronchitis and pneumonia are also red flags that lead to the early detection of asthma, possible control of triggers, and prevention of long-term or irreversible complications.


Fortifying the home vs. asthma

Based on the identified triggers, it would be easier to control or prevent asthma attacks in the future. Dr. Romana-Bantiles mentions practical adjustments that could be made at home to avoid asthma attacks:

• Keep air clean;

• avoid pet dander by leaving pets outdoors, frequently cleaning areas where they often stay, or giving them frequent baths;

• frequently wash bed linens and expose mattresses to sunlight;

• install an air-conditioning system, especially if your home is located near highways or main roads, to prevent smog and dust from entering; or

• keep your child as healthy as possible through weight control and regular exercise as advised by the pediatrician; and

• avoid abrupt changes in humidity and room temperature.
avoid pet dander by leaving pets outdoors, frequently cleaning areas where they often stay, or giving them frequent baths;


Other tips include:

• Vacuum weekly;

• avoid giving stuffed toys to children with asthma, or make sure that any stuffed toys are kept in plastic bags or boxes with air-tight lids to prevent them from collecting dust;

• if asthma is triggered by exercise, restrict physical activity, depending on the severity of asthma;

• use hypoallergenic sheets or pillow cases;

• wash mold and mildew off surfaces and keep kitchens and bathrooms dry at all times;

• keep areas free from cockroaches and rodents at all times;

• avoid smoking in the house or in areas where asthmatic patients often stay;

• avoid products with strong odors such as perfumes, hairsprays, scented lotions, paints and cleaning products; and

• keep rooms well-ventilated when using these products in your home.


Whatever the cause is, the most important preventive measure is to avoid the trigger itself. Since asthmatic individuals often have allergies, it is recommended that they have an allergy skin test to identify which triggers to avoid to prevent attacks in the future.

For more on asthma, its triggers, and the role of the home in its management, grab a copy of HealthToday’s August issue, out now in bookstores and newsstands.

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