COPD, Asthma, and You: Biological Allergens

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April showers bring May flowers . . . and biological allergens that trigger summer shortness of breath. Everyone encounters these allergens outside and indoors throughout most of the year. Knowing about biological allergens and staying vigilant may help you maintain respiratory health.

Classes of Biological Allergens

Biological allergens, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals, occur in nature. Their effects range from mild to severe, depending on each person’s sensitivity and other factors. Here are common groups of biological allergens to watch for:

Flowers, trees, grasses, and other plants produce pollen to create seeds. Sometimes pollen appears as a fine granular coating that covers objects outside. But many types of pollen can’t be seen. Since pollen is airborne and very small, it easily breezes through open windows and doors. Sensitivity to specific pollens varies by individual.
Most often, the molds that you see growing in damp places are not the problem. But they produce spores—tiny “seeds” similar to pollen—that can be inhaled. Persons sensitive to mold spores often have greater difficulty breathing. Some molds and their spores, such as “black mold” can be toxic, resulting in other health problems. Molds thrive and produce spores in dark, warm, and damp environments.
Dust Mites
Dust mites are microscopic bugs that feed on human and pet dander (flakes of dead skin). Mites generate allergens that often produce severe breathing difficulty for persons with asthma. They thrive under slightly damp conditions and live in bedding (mattresses, feather-stuffed pillows), upholstered furniture, curtains, and carpets.
Pet Dander
Many people are allergic to their pets’ dander. While animal fur usually produces few problems, dogs and cats continually shed dander that can cause severe respiratory problems for many people, including asthma sufferers.
Cockroaches are found in many homes and are unsightly to look at. Worse, they distribute allergens, usually in their feces, that can become airborne. Researchers have determined that cockroach allergens cause severe respiratory difficulty for many people with respiratory ailments.
Bacteria and viruses are universally present in our environment. When inhaled, many produce infectious diseases (such as pneumonia and COVID-19) that affect respiratory function and become life-threatening. These microscopic organisms are often airborne, and they thrive under warm, damp conditions.


How to Control Biological Allergens

Some steps to control biological allergens and reduce triggering asthma attacks will work for several classes of allergens.

Reduce Indoor Humidity

Eliminating damp areas and reducing indoor humidity will prevent production of mold spores, dust mite allergens, cockroach allergens, and some bacteria or viruses. To combat these kinds of threats, it might be wise to invest in room or household dehumidifiers. Damp areas should be thoroughly cleaned and dried regularly.

Control Dust Mites

Controlling dust mites requires special measures.

  • Launder bedding (sheets, blankets, mattress covers) weekly at 130°
  • Use synthetic-material pillows
  • Eliminate carpeting as much as possible; if necessary, use a HEPA-filtered vacuum
  • Eliminate drapes and curtains
  • Use smooth-surfaced furniture as much as possible
  • Damp mop floors often
  • If possible, wrap mattresses and pillows in allergen-impermeable covers

Control Cockroach Allergens

Employ methods used to control dust mites.

In addition, clean kitchen areas thoroughly, especially under appliances where food droppings or crumbs might collect.

For severe infestations, get professional help.

Reduce Pollen

When weather reports indicate high pollen levels outside, keep windows and doors closed. During warmer months, use air conditioning whenever possible, and stay indoors.

Eliminate Pet Dander

Asthma exacerbations that are triggered by pet dander present special challenges. All furry animals, such as dogs and cats, shed dander (dead skin flakes). Dander cannot be removed easily from furniture, carpets/rugs, or bedding. While pet hair can be removed, hair alone does not cause allergic reactions.

Avoiding Bacteria and Viruses

Persons who suffer from any respiratory malady should avoid bacteria or viruses that cause respiratory infection or distress. Of course, this is not easy, especially now.

Persons who have asthma or COPD or who care for those who do should take extra precautions to avoid transmitting the novel coronavirus.

Moving Forward

If you need additional information, the following resources provide useful news and tips:

American Lung Association

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Coping with biological allergens can seem daunting. The good news, however, is that maintaining a clean, low-humidity environment can work wonders. Everyone will benefit from the measures described above.