Millions of people suffer from allergies and experience the daily nuisance of sneezing, itchy eyes, and a stuffy nose. But if you have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), you might be wondering—can my allergies also cause a COPD flare-up?
The answer is yes, your allergies can cause a COPD flare-up. In this article, we will discuss the types of allergens that can cause a COPD flare-up and what you can do to avoid them.
What is a COPD Flare-Up?
Let’s briefly discuss what a COPD flare-up looks like. The basic idea is a sudden worsening of your symptoms, such as:
- Increased mucus production
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling "winded" more easily
If you are keeping track of your daily symptoms, you may start to see patterns in the onset of these symptoms. This data will help you hone in on the potential triggers behind your symptom fluctuations. But even if you don’t have perfect records of your symptoms, you may have noticed that certain things cause you to have more wheezing or shortness of breath.
Triggers such as sudden weather changes, infections, anxiety, and various allergens can provoke a flare-up. Every one of these triggers can be discussed at length on their own, but we’ll spend the remainder of this article focusing on the role allergens play in your COPD flare-ups.
Before we discuss the different types of allergens, let’s briefly define what an allergen is.
What is an Allergen?
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology defines an allergen as:
"A usually harmless substance capable of triggering a response that starts in the immune system and results in an allergic reaction."
An allergen can be any substance that triggers an immune response. In some people, a particular allergen may not have any effect. However, other people may have a severe COPD exacerbation to the very same allergen.
Since allergens and allergic responses lie on a spectrum from person to person, it can be difficult to know which allergens will affect you unless you have a perceived response or get tested by an allergist.
That said, you can still make great strides in your health by becoming aware of the most common allergens and avoiding or reducing them.
The 5 Allergens That Can Cause COPD Flare-Ups
The allergens that may cause your COPD symptoms to get worse suddenly can be separated into 5 main categories:
The vast majority of people who suffer from allergies are allergic to pollen. Pollen comes from trees, grasses, and weeds, and is carried by wind mostly during the spring, summer, and fall seasons. Since it is an airborne particle, it is especially difficult to avoid once you go outside during active seasons.
Pollen is in the air almost year-round in many areas. While many pollens become less active at extremely low temperatures, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will have no exposure during the winter.
That said, one of the best ways to reduce your exposure on days when pollen is most active is to check your local pollen map.
The more you check the pollen map in your area, the more you will be aware of the daily fluctuations in your area. With this knowledge, you may consider planning your weekly errands on days you know the pollen levels will be lower.
2. Air Pollutants
Wikipedia defines an air pollutant as "A substance in the air that can have adverse effects on humans and the ecosystem."
Air pollution is a big topic with a variety of substances qualifying as pollutants, but the Environmental Protection Agency lists 6 main air pollutants:
- Ground-level ozone
- Particulate matter
- Carbon monoxide
- Sulfur dioxide
- Nitrogen dioxide
There is also a full list of various air pollutants that you may wish to familiarize yourself with if you know you are exposed to them.
While it can be difficult to avoid these substances completely (as many are part of the world we live in now), you can still reduce your exposure.
Airnow.gov puts out a daily air quality report that will tell you the condition of the air in your area. Similar to the pollen map, you can check the air quality in your area and schedule your weekly routine to reduce your exposure to air pollutants.
3. Household Chemicals
Keeping your home clean can help reduce your exposure to allergens, but the cleaning chemicals you use can also be considered allergens.
Household chemicals that can affect your lungs include:
- Dishwashing liquids
- Floor and bathroom cleaners
- Hair products
- Perfumes and other fragrant beauty products
- Appliance cleaners
- Metal and wood fumes
You might not have an allergic reaction to everything on this list. But if you experience a lot of COPD flare-ups at home, you might consider stopping all use of these products and bringing them back one by one while observing your reactions. If you notice your breathing is getting worse after reintroducing a product, then it is time to find a more natural substance that you can use as a substitute.
4. Tobacco Smoke
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, tobacco smoke has over 7,000 chemicals in it. On top of that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that "COPD is usually caused by smoking."
There is plenty more evidence like this, but the point is clear:
Avoiding smoke from any source should be priority number one for anyone with COPD.
If you are still smoking but would like to quit, there are plenty of online resources to help you.
However, there are still dangers even if you don’t smoke but are regularly exposed to second-hand or even third-hand smoke.
While most people are already aware of the dangers of second-hand smoke (especially with children), third-hand smoke is particularly dangerous because it lingers for many years. The residue from cigarette smoke remains on household items for years and can easily find its way back into the air and into your lungs. This recycled exposure can be a persistent allergen that may cause ongoing COPD exacerbations, even if it has been years since anyone has smoked in your home.
Dust is everywhere. It is part of the world we live in. But you can still control the levels of dust in your home once you become aware of the potential sources. Dust comes from many different places:
- Pet hair or feathers
- Dust mites
- Building materials
As dust collects over the surfaces of your home, any disruption can draw it into the air and turn it into a breathable allergen.
The best ways to reduce and manage the levels of dust in your home include:
- Using hypoallergenic linens
- Using a mask when cleaning
- Keeping pets outside of your home
- Removing carpet or having it regularly cleaned
- Avoiding excess humidity or water spillage in your home
Also, contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, dusting with a feather duster is not a good idea. Doing so will only disperse the dust into the air and create an airborne dust storm. The best way to clean up dust is to use a damp cloth and slowly wipe the dust off.
What You Can Do to Prevent Allergy-Related COPD Flare-Ups
While 100% prevention of allergy-related COPD flare-ups is not entirely possible, it is still within your control to reduce and even eliminate some of the worst allergens. There is a 4-part strategy to do this:
As you become more aware of your triggers, you will be prepared to avoid them. It is essential to keep track of your symptoms from day to day and record the various allergens you were exposed to that day.
Once you discover patterns in your symptoms and the potential allergens associated with them, you can create a plan to avoid or reduce your exposure.
If you have the resources, it is worth asking your doctor to refer you to an allergist. Some insurance providers do not require you to have a referral. It is worth looking into if you experience a lot of COPD flare-ups and don’t know why.
Testing for allergies can be done by a blood or skin test. Depending on the allergens you are looking for, your doctor will determine which is right for you.
Allergy medications can be found over-the-counter or by prescription. Some include:
- Nasal sprays
- Allergy shots
It is usually best to try an over-the-counter medicine first to see which works best for you. But if you are not finding relief, talk to your doctor about prescription medications that can help keep your allergic responses under control.
4. Equipment Maintenance
If you have home equipment related to your COPD management such as a portable oxygen device, a nasal cannula, a humidifier, a CPAP or BIPAP machine, or a nebulizer machine, keeping them clean is essential.
These devices can collect dust and mold if they are not cleaned regularly. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines on how to clean and change any necessary filters in your equipment.
Managing your COPD flare-ups requires a thorough review of the allergens in your environment that are causing you to have symptoms. Although this initial review will take some time and effort up front, you will eventually have a robust plan to reduce your allergen exposure for years to come and experience more control over your symptoms.