Having asthma can be a colossal pain, given that breathing is a nonnegotiable part of, you know, staying alive. Asthma is a respiratory condition that impacts the airways that go from your nose and mouth to your lungs, and it can make breathing so much more difficult than it should be.
When people with asthma are exposed to triggers, like dust, cold air, pollen, exercise, mold, and respiratory infections, their airways can narrow and restrict airflow, making it tough to breathe, according to the National Heart, Lungs, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). This can make the muscles surrounding their airways constrict, which further worsens the problem. On top of that, inflamed airways can produce more mucus than normal, so breathing becomes even more difficult. Combined, this all can lead to issues like shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness, according to the NHLBI.
If you know you have asthma, you probably have a decent idea of what makes breathing easier and harder, as well as a treatment plan to keep your symptoms at bay. But some things may regularly trip you up—and impact your health and happiness—without you even realizing it.
“Not having your asthma under control will definitely impair your quality of life,” Sadia Benzaquen, M.D., a pulmonologist and associate professor in the department of internal medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells SELF. If your asthma isn’t controlled for a long period of time, it can be hard to function at 100 percent, and you may even experience a harmful phenomenon called airway remodeling. This is a permanent change in your airways that can make it harder to breathe all the time, not just during asthma flares, Dr. Benzaquen says.
Here are six common ways you might be making your asthma worse without even realizing it, plus how to fix that.
1. You don’t clean your place at least once a week.
Dust mites, mold, and pet dander (skin particles and dried saliva that some animals shed) are some of the most common asthma triggers. Unless you clean regularly, this stuff might be hanging around your house, exacerbating your asthma. “Being exposed to dust mites, mold, pets, and other allergens may trigger an inflammatory response that makes your asthma worse,” Dr. Benzaquen says. Over time, this can lead to airway remodeling if you don’t do something about it, Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, tells SELF.
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) recommends cleaning your place weekly if your asthma flares up with these kinds of irritants, but there are specific guidelines based on the exact trigger and the room you’re cleaning.
If your respiratory system just can’t even with dust mites, you’ll need to take extra care in your bedroom. You spend a ton of time sleeping there, and just like you, dust mites love hanging out in your bed. Among other recommendations, the AAAAI suggests encasing pillows, mattresses, and box springs in dust-mite-proof covers, along with washing bedding weekly in water that’s at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
If mold is your problem, you’ll want to focus on reducing dampness in your home to keep mold growth as minimal as possible. You can wipe up moisture in your refrigerator, towel-dry your tub after using it, make sure to tackle any mold around plumbing fixtures as soon as you see it, and repair leaks ASAP, among other measures.
When it comes to pet dander, designating your bedroom as a pet-free zone and using a vacuum with a small-particle or HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter are just two of your many options.
Ultimately, if you have indoor allergies, the exact steps you take to eliminate your triggers may vary—but cleaning regularly is a must.
2. You use really strong household cleaners, like bleach and ammonia.
So, you’ve decided to go all-out with the cleaning. Good job! Just make sure you’re not accidentally undoing your hard work with cleaning products that can irritate your airways. The harsh chemicals in some household cleaners can make asthma worse, according to the AAAAI. Ammonia and bleach are the biggies to avoid if you can, Anastasiya Kleva, M.D., a board-certified allergist at ENT and Allergy Associates NY, tells SELF.
The AAAAI recommends opting for a product with a Green Seal of Approval, a designation meant to signify that the product is easier on the environment. Since these often come from plant or other natural sources, they can be kinder to your airways. You can also make your own cleaning solution, using two cups of vinegar, two cups of very hot water, a 1/2 cup of salt, and two cups of the mineral borax (you can look for it in grocery stores, hardware shops, and online), the organization says.
If you make these tweaks and are still struggling with your asthma when you clean, Dr. Casciari recommends checking in with a pulmonologist or allergist to try to figure out what’s going on. They may recommend you take additional steps to keep your asthma under control while cleaning, like wearing a face mask since the act of cleaning kicks up dust. “There are a lot of things you can do,” Dr. Casciari says. “Asthma, in most cases, is 100 percent treatable.”
3. You drive your car with the windows down.
Driving with the windows down on a warm day feels amazing, but it can set you up for an asthma attack if pollen is your trigger, Ryan Thomas, M.D., a pulmonologist and director of the Michigan State University Pediatric Pulmonary CMDS Clinics, tells SELF. “People who regularly drive with the windows down may find their asthma is harder to control at different times of year,” he says.
Pollution can also be an issue if you drive through populated areas because it’s an airway irritant, Dr. Kleva says. If you know you have asthma, take a hard pass on rolling down the windows and run your air conditioner instead so you’re not blasting irritants into your face. While car air conditioners aren’t perfect at filtering out gunk, they can still remove a lot of allergens, Dr. Casciari notes.
4. You don’t use your inhaler before you work out.
Anyone with asthma can have issues breathing when they exercise, Dr. Casciari says. But people with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (sometimes called exercise-induced asthma) experience asthma symptom flares that are specifically tied to physical exertion. If you have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, you may regularly cough, wheeze, and experience chest tightness when you work out, according to the Mayo Clinic. You might also struggle more than other people to catch your breath when you wrap up your exercise session, still feel tired hours after working out, and feel out of shape even though you know you’re not. If exercise is a trigger for your asthma, your doctor might prescribe a pre-exercise medication, like an inhaler with a short-acting beta agonist to open your airways, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Toting your inhaler around with you (and remembering to actually use it) can be annoying and inconvenient. You might forget here and there…which may turn into never using it and just pushing through workouts as best you can. Don’t fall into this trap. It can make your exercise-induced asthma symptoms much more severe than they would be with your meds, Dr. Benzaquen says.
Foregoing your pre-workout asthma drugs can also make working out feel so awful that you start to avoid it. This is a shame, because regular exercise and being physically fit are associated with better asthma control, Dr. Thomas says. Staying physically active makes your muscles more efficient, so they need less oxygen to function. This taxes your lungs less and helps keep them in better operating condition.
Bottom line: It’s important to try to do what you can to allow yourself to work out comfortably. If that includes using an inhaler before you exercise, so be it.
5. You regularly exercise in the cold.
People with asthma can experience airway spasms after inhaling cold, dry air, the Mayo Clinicsays. If you have asthma and you keep working out in chilly temps, you might be setting yourself up for an asthma attack.
That’s why Dr. Casciari recommends exercising indoors when it’s cold out. You can also cover your mouth with a scarf or wear a mask to help warm the air before it reaches your airways, he says. In addition, you may want to focus on breathing through your nose to warm and humidify the air before it reaches your lungs and cutting back on intense workouts when you have a cold or other respiratory infection, according to the Mayo Clinic.
6. You don’t have a plan to cut down on your stress.
In the age of nuclear attack anxiety and Beyoncé dropping concert tickets without considering your bank account, stress is inevitable. While stress can be rough for anyone, it can be especially burdensome for people with asthma because it can make symptoms worse, potentially even leading to an asthma attack, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you have asthma, it’s crucial to figure out how to cope when you’re under stress, Dr. Casciari says. “You can’t avoid stress, so get yourself a plan,” he says.
Your plan will need to be individual to you, since only you know what helps calm you down. It can be as simple as taking a beat and counting backwards from 10 when you feel yourself start to feel frazzled, a technique Dr. Casciari says works really well for some of his patients. Or, if you’re routinely so stressed out that it’s interfering with your ability to function, it may involve seeing a therapist or starting anti-anxiety medications. If you’re having trouble coming up with a plan that works for you, talk to your doctor—they should be able to help.