Dust, pollution, smoke and badly maintained air-conditioning are all asthma triggers

Rain can bring relief, but thunderstorms can bounce irritants back into the air

Leading asthma expert shares health tips as temperatures rise for summer

Extreme heat, dust particles, atmospheric pollution, and even thunderstorms can trigger breathing difficulties for people with asthma living in hot climates, a leading international asthma expert has warned ahead of World Asthma Day on May 1st.

Dr. Sumita Khatri, M.D., co-director of the Asthma Center at Cleveland Clinic in the United States, says hot temperatures increase the levels atmospheric ozone in the air. In addition, year-round and particularly in arid conditions, there can be increased amount of microscopic particles suspended in the air (knowns as particulate matter or PM), such as dust from sand, crustal elements from soil/dirt, or from tire and brake related sources. All of these can trigger breathing problems for people with asthma. Components of the PM pollution can have various effects depending upon what adheres to the particles, for instance, allergens or bacterial elements into the airways, as well as being irritants in their own right, including diesel particles, road dust, and sand.

“Much of the risk is related to air pollution – in warmer climates you have sunlight, heat, and volatile organic compounds from combustion of fossil fuels, resulting in chemical reactions that cause an increase in ground-level ozone,” Dr. Khatri explains.

“The temperature alone can cause a certain amount of stress, whether it’s humid or dry heat, and we also have sudden changes in temperature as people move in and out of air-conditioning. Any of these can cause irritation or inflammation in the airways, and difficulty breathing.”

In hot, dry climates, such as desert regions, dust storms are a particular concern. In areas where forest fires are common, atmospheric smoke can be a problem.

While Dr. Khatri says many of the irritants that trigger asthma will be relieved by rain, which reduces the suspended concentration of these elements, there are also incidences of ‘thunderstorm asthma’, when rain is so heavy it vigorously bounces particles off the ground, and disperses the allergenic components back into the air.

She also points out that the indoor environment can also affect asthmatics, with irritants such as dust and mold in the home, and that these can be made worse by poorly maintained air-conditioning and lack of ventilation.

“Many of the broader aspects that can affect people – many of them related to air pollution – aren’t apparent to the general population,” she said.

“If a patient has asthma, or has a predisposition towards the condition, it doesn’t take much for an external irritant to perpetuate inflammation.”

Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult. Swelling of the air passages results in a temporary narrowing of the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs, resulting in symptoms including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.

While keen to stress that each person is unique and experiences asthma differently, Dr. Khatri said abrupt changes in the environment put the body under stress. She flagged up several factors that could trigger asthma attacks, also known as episodes, in susceptible patients – and suggested ways to mitigate risk.

Learn your triggers
When you have difficulty breathing, take note of those things that might be triggers, and consider keeping a diary with you to write them down. Over time this will help you identify those things that you are particularly sensitive to, even if the effect is after you might have expected.

Avoid triggers if possible

Try to avoid those things that are likely to cause an asthma attack, such as allergens and pollution and dust, by staying inside when it’s dusty, avoiding travel during busy periods on the road, or keeping air-conditioning at a temperate level to reduce the shock when moving between indoors and outdoors.

Use your medication

Consult a physician and ensure you use any medication as prescribed. Medications are available that reduce the likelihood of an asthma attack, and also that relieve the symptoms when they do happen. It may be appropriate to increase asthma anti-inflammatory controller medications in anticipation of seasonal or weather-related conditions that flare up asthma.

Ventilation and air-conditioning

Indoor air quality is important, so make sure the home is sealed against dust pollution and that air-conditioning is cleaned and maintained. However, while it is important to keep the dust out, you should also ensure that there is some ventilation and that air is not simply recirculated within the building.

Wash or remove fabrics and textiles

Fabrics, including furniture, curtains and rugs, can all trap dust and other irritants. Clean them thoroughly and frequently, or minimize their use. A tile, stone, or wooden floor rather than carpet can dramatically improve your indoor environment and can be maintained with wiping down with moist cloths or mops.

Keep the home clean
Mold and mildew, particularly in areas prone to damp such as washrooms or underneath sinks, and dust in the corners of the room, can all be triggers, and they don’t have to be visible to be harmful. Even the spores you don’t see can cause problems.

Eliminate pests
Dampness can attract unwelcome visitors. In addition to carrying multiple diseases, cockroaches can trigger an allergic response in some people, as can droppings from rodents.

Don’t smoke

Smoking should be avoided absolutely. Second-hand smoke is a severe health risk and serious indoor pollutant, and smoke particles continue to hang in the air long after the smoke is no longer visible.

Leave your shoes at the door

Our shoes can carry allergens in from the outdoors. Taking them off when we enter the building keeps those allergens outside where they belong.

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