Asthma Triggers Lurk Indoors in Winter

Ten-year-old Jordan Garcia is allergic to just about everything – cat hair, corn syrup, grasses.

But it’s not just a minor annoyance – the sniffling, the sneezing. These allergens could kill him. He has asthma, an illness that can become life threatening if not managed properly.

Just because it’s winter and Jordan is spending more time indoors doesn’t mean his mom, Marlene, can rest. Allergens lurk indoors and out.

“The only thing I can control is his room,” she says. Getting special covers for mattresses and pillows and removing the wall-to-wall carpeting are some ways she has protected her son.

As winter pounds against doors and windows, and Americans hunker down, indoor allergens such as mold, mildew, pet dander and dust mites can set off asthma attacks.

“When people think of allergies, they think of pollens in the spring and fall. But allergies can often get worse in the winter,” says Gailen D. Marshall Jr., M.D., Ph.D., F.A.A.A.A.I., who leads the division of allergy and clinical immunology at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston.

Sealing off the house from winter drafts and spending more time indoors make allergic reactions more common, he says.

“People aren’t as active, and they are not as aggressive about cleaning the home and dusting,” Marshall says.

And, he says, this is a particularly bad time of year because the weather and the conditions created by humidifiers in most of the country promote the growth of dust mites that can trigger allergic reactions. Dust mites are virtually non-existent in the Southwest where conditions are dryer.

Research shows allergens play a large role in triggering airway inflammation and asthmatic symptoms. Asthma is a life-threatening lung disease in which airways became inflamed, leading to episodes of breathing difficulty such as wheezing and shortness of breath.

Children, and adults

An estimated 17 million Americans suffer from asthma.

More than 10 million, or 60 percent, of people with asthma also suffer from allergic asthma, according to the National Institutes of Health. Estimates from a skin test survey suggest that allergies affect as many as 40 million to 50 million Americans, according to American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI).

Allergies often are the primary trigger for asthma symptoms in people younger than 30. At least 70 percent of people older than 30 with asthma also are allergic to airborne particles, according to the AAAAI. Every day in the United States 14 people suffer a fatal asthma attack.

Children with asthma miss more than 10 million school days annually, making the condition one of the leading causes of missed school days.

However, both allergies and asthma can start any time during life, even in the senior years. The number of people with asthma has been increasing since the early 1980s in all ages and racial groups and in both sexes. The number of asthma sufferers more than doubled from 6.7 million in 1980 to 17.3 million in 1998, according to the AAAAI.

You can help prevent asthma symptoms, Marshall says.

So what can you do?

Get that vacuum roaring, and keep that dust cloth handy. Make sure you eliminate as much as possible the number of irritants in the home.

But it’s the bedroom that is the most crucial. “We breathe that air more than at any other time during the day…You spend a one-fourth or one-third of your day in the bedroom,” Marshall says.

Here are tips for keeping your allergies under control during the winter:

  • Encase pillows and the mattress with special encasings that protect against dust mites. Place a barrier between you and the dust mites that live in the mattress and pillows.
  • Once a week, wash sheets in very hot water, at least 130 degrees F, for at least 10 minutes to kill dust mites.
  • Eliminate all sources of dust. Clear out the clutter. Look under the bed and on bookshelves.
  • Wash the curtains.
  • Be sure to clean window air-conditioning filters.
  • Dust all surfaces such as picture frames, walls and floors with a slightly damp cloth.
  • If possible, remove all carpeting. Carpets collect dust, crumbs, hairs, fluff from clothing and mold.
  • No matter if your room is carpeted or not, vacuum the room thoroughly at least once a week.
  • Don’t have a dirty clothes hamper in the bedroom. Dirty clothes are a breeding ground for mold and mildew.
  • Keep pets outside whenever possible. And do not allow them into the bedroom.

External Resources

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics
National Allergy Bureau