Why Asthmatics Should Stop Cleaning... or Not?

I recently read about research that suggests women who clean, either at home or on the job, could face a decline in lung function. This sounded like a good reason to me to stop cleaning altogether, since I have asthma. I mean, why would I want to further compromise my airways? Time for my husband to step up! (Just kidding.)

Seriously, though, there are pros and cons to cleaning your house when you have asthma. This post will look more closely at those issues.

What are the risks of cleaning with asthma?

Let's start with what we already know. The most common kind of asthma is allergic asthma. People, like me, with this type of asthma, find that their symptoms are triggered by allergens in the environment, such as:

Cleaning can potentially stir up all of these allergens if they are present in your home. Sweeping, dusting and shaking out bed linens, rugs and pillows are especially likely to do so. Vacuuming can too, although most vacuum cleaners these days are equipped with HEPA-filters, which do collect and filter out such allergens so they don't circulate.

So, it's easy to see there could be some risks for the allergic asthmatic when it comes to cleaning. But in addition, there may be other concerns, according to a recent study published online in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.1

Researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway analyzed data from the European Community Respiratory Health Survey. Here are the details:

  • 6,235 participants
  • Average age of the participants was 34 at the time they enrolled in the survey
  • Participants were followed for more than 20 years

Experts have urged caution in using cleaning products and chemicals with strong odors or fumes because they are an irritant that can trigger an asthma attack. However, the Norwegian researchers wanted to know what kinds of long-term effects exposure to such products might have. They theorized that these chemicals might steadily cause "a little damage to the airways day after day, year after year, [and] might accelerate the rate of lung function decline that occurs with age."1

The results of the study supported that theory

Researchers compared two types of data:

  • Forced expiratory volume in one second (also known as FEV1), or the amount of air a person can forcibly exhale in one second
  • Forced vital capacity (FVC), or the total amount of air a person can forcibly exhale

They found that:

  • FEV1 was reduced 3.6 milliliters (ml)/year faster in women who cleaned at home
  • FEV1 was reduced 3.9 ml/year faster in women who worked as cleaners
  • FVC declined 4.3 ml/year faster in women who cleaned at home
  • FVC declined 7.1 ml/year faster in women who worked as cleaners

In fact, they concluded that the decline in lung function among those women was "comparable to smoking somewhat less than 20 pack-years."2 They also found that asthma was more prevalent in women who cleaned with such chemicals, compared to those who did not.

  • In women who cleaned at home, 12.3 percent had asthma
  • In women who cleaned at work, 13.7 percent had asthma
  • Only 9.6 percent of women who did not clean had asthma

Interestingly, the study didn't find that men who cleaned had the same level of lung function decline as women did. However, there were limitations in the study that may have accounted for some of these differences.

The takeaway was that cleaning with such chemicals is not a healthy approach for anyone. These days there is a wide variety of safer, non-toxic cleaning products available than there was 20 years ago. So, there is little need for any of us to risk such long-term lung damage.

The pros of cleaning your home environment

On the other hand, experts do advise that it's smart to keep your home environment as free of dust, pollen and other allergen build up as possible.3 So, cleaning is important.

In fact, allergist Todd Mahr, MD, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). said:

“A thorough cleaning helps get rid of things like dust, mold, pet dander and other allergens which may have been making you miserable all winter. Many people think spring and fall is when their seasonal allergies kick in. They might not realize indoor allergens can also cause chaos with your nasal passages and lungs and that a thorough cleaning can help.”

It's never possible to totally free your environment from allergens, even if you're the most diligent cleaner. But that doesn't mean you should just let them pile up, especially during the cold weather months when it's harder to ventilate your home.

The question is whether you should be the one to do the cleaning. If cleaning tends to trigger your asthma and allergy symptoms, then you may want to consider asking someone else to take on this task.

So, in short, while I'd love to have an excuse not to have to clean any longer, I don't think that's the smart approach. On the other hand, I just may ask my husband to take on some of the cleaning chores for a change!

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