Whether or not you suffer from asthma, dust and cleaning products can cause some irritation to your lungs. Cleaning and asthma combined can be particularly problematic, and recent studies have shown that regular exposure to the chemicals in common cleaning products can have an adverse effect on our breathing. We all tend to rely on chemicals for our cleaning, but actually, natural and gentler cleaners can be equally as effective and more appropriate in many common household situations.
The strong chemical cleaners we use to keep our houses clean and germ-free can irritate the mucous membranes lining the lungs. This can actually cause long-term damage, even to healthy lungs.
Research was carried out at the University of Bergen, looking at data from the European Community Respiratory Health Survey. They were looking to learn more about the long-term effects of cleaning chemicals on the lungs, where previous studies had only considered the short-term effects.
The evidence suggested that regular exposure was damaging, with women suffering the effects more than men. This could be because more women work within the cleaning industry, or may just be more susceptible to the damaging effects of powerful cleaning products.
The biggest problems are caused by chemicals called VOCs, which are found in all sorts of cleaning products from furniture polish to carpet cleaners. In solid or liquid form, these can be less of an issue than using sprays, with are easily inhaled. However, strong-smelling liquids and solids do have the same effect. Over time, exposure to VOCs, a key contributor to air pollution, can increase a person’s risk of developing asthma and other conditions of the chest and lungs.
Cleaning and asthma – how to manage it
Although asthma sufferers are likely to feel the effects more distinctly than those with healthy lungs, this advice is applicable to everyone.
Firstly, try to avoid spray cleaners which immediately get into the air and can be easily inhaled. Even when using solid or liquid products, avoid those that are scented, particularly if you have previously found that scented products cause irritation. In fact, the recommendation from the University of Bergen is that water and microfiber cloths are sufficient and safer in most cases. Otherwise, you can try other natural cleaning products, or those labelled as allergy-friendly: these products contain lower levels of VOCs.
If the use of chemical products is still preferred or unavoidable, make sure the area you are working in is well ventilated.
Dealing With Asthma Attacks
For some of the 5.4 million asthma sufferers in the UK, cleaning and asthma combined could be one of the triggers of an asthma attack.
The symptoms of an asthma attack can develop over a number of hours or even days. You may experience:
- a worsening of your general asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest
- extreme breathlessness
- rapid breathing, or feeling that you cannot catch your breath
- a lower peak flow score
- your blue inhaler may prove ineffective
As an asthma sufferer, you should try to make sure you have an action-plan ready in case of an attack, and avoid triggers as much as possible. If you are having great difficulty breathing and cannot find a way or relieving your symptoms, do not hesitate to dial 999. If you do not feel that it is an emergency, you can contact NHS Direct by dialling 111. They can help you deal with the attack and may direct you towards your nearest out of hours services, which may include a primary care centre.
If your symptoms improve without assistance, you will still need to make an appointment with your GP or asthma nurse. If you have been admitted to hospital due to an attack, you will also need to make an appointment within 48 hours.