Asthma, Allergies, and Respiratory Illness

Housing factors can play a significant role in respiratory health and greatly exacerbate or increase susceptibility to asthma, allergies, and other respiratory illnesses. For example, numerous home pollutants—dust mites, pet dander, cockroach debrismold, tobacco smoke, and paint fumes—are known to aggravate asthma. Controlling exposure to these and other triggers in the environment benefits overall respiratory health.Asthma is a chronic disease in which the airways of the lungs become inflamed or narrowed, resulting in disruptions to normal breathing patterns, often called “attacks” or “episodes.” The level of severity of asthma suffered by each individual, and further, the severity of each attack, varies greatly. Symptoms of asthma include wheezing, shortness of breath, a feeling of tightness in the chest, and coughing. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 8.7 percent of all children (6.3 million) had asthma in 2001. The American Lung Association (ALA) states that asthma accounts for an estimated 3 million lost workdays for adults and 10.1 million lost school days in children annually, making it the leading cause of chronic illness among children. Additionally, ALA ranks asthma among the top ten conditions causing limitation of activity, and the disease costs the United States $16 billion annually.

Scientists do not know exactly what causes the development of asthma in individuals, nor is there a cure for asthma once it has developed. It is generally thought that some people are born with a genetic predisposition toward developing asthma, but environmental (and potentially societal) factors play a role in the actual development of the disease. It is this knowledge that allows scientists to determine ways in which asthma attacks can be prevented or limited. Generally, asthma attacks are “triggered” by something. In relation to the home environment, triggers can be grouped into two primary categories: allergens and irritants. Allergens are typically defined as something that causes an allergic reaction in some people, but not others. Indoor allergens include dust mitescockroach debris, pet dander, and mold. Irritants are substances that irritate the respiratory tract and include tobacco smoke and paint fumes.

Although many people who have asthma have respiratory allergies, not all do. Similarly, not all people who have respiratory allergies have asthma. Symptoms of respiratory allergies include sneezing; watery eyes; coughing; itchy eyes, nose, and throat; and wheezing. In addition to asthma attacks induced by allergens, respiratory allergic diseases include rhinitis (hay fever) and sinusitis. The same indoor allergens that may trigger asthma attacks in asthmatics can be responsible for respiratory allergies in others. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) reports that allergic diseases are the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States. Less overwhelming than the statistics for asthma but nonetheless striking, allergies account for $4.5 billion in direct medical costs in the U.S. and 3.8 million lost work and school days per year, according to AAAAI.

Overall, the rates of individuals suffering from asthma and allergies are increasing. Of particular concern, however, is the disparity in the health risks to different populations. For example, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health document that when compared to whites, African-Americans have higher rates of asthma, higher numbers of emergency room visits and hospitalizations from the disease, and three to four times the number of asthma deaths. Particular attention and concern is also being directed to the disproportional increases in childhood asthma rates (pre-school aged especially), and further, among children in inner city, minority populations.

Housing conditions can play a key role in delaying or preventing the development of asthma and preventing or limiting the occurrence of asthma attacks and allergic reactions. For more information on the housing hazards most often associated with respiratory health and how to control them, see Health Hazards and Ensuring Quality Housing Conditions.

Sources and Additional Information:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology –

American Lung Association –

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America –

Asthma Moms –

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – National Asthma Control Program –

Environmental Protection Agency, Indoor Air Quality, Asthma and Indoor Environments –

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – Factsheet: Asthma and its Environmental Triggers –

Healthy People 2010 –

SleepWorkPlaytm – A Resource of the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America –