It has been estimated that people spend about 90% of their time indoors during the winter, with doors and windows closed, storm windows down and homes sealed up to keep the warmth in. During this time, indoor air pollutant levels may be many times higher than the outdoor levels. This can be troublesome for those who are most sensitive to pollutants in the air, such as those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.

People with respiratory illnesses, like COPD and asthma, are at risk for negative health effects during the colder winter months. These individuals may have increased symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing, fatigue and increased mucous production caused by poor indoor air quality and environmental triggers.

Here are a few things to be aware of to manage through the colder months.

Environmental triggers. Environmental triggers are indoor air pollutants and allergens that may affect sensitive airways. Dust, pet dander, mold, fumes from cleaning products, smoke from wood heating, dirty heating systems, carpeting, perfumes, scented laundry and cleaning products, and cigarette smoke are common indoor triggers. Remember — if you can smell it, you are breathing it.

Monitor indoor air quality. All types of smoke have negative effects on indoor air quality, including smoke from cigarettes, wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. While these can generate a lot of heat, they also generate indoor air pollutants that can cause health problems. Homes with wood-burning heat have elevated levels of indoor air pollutants regardless of whether the system is drafty or airtight.

Adjust for sudden temperature changes. Sudden changes in temperature or extreme weather changes can also make respiratory symptoms worse. The recommended indoor temperature range is between 68–72 degrees. Switching from breathing warm inside air to breathing cold, dry outside air can make breathing difficult. Before you leave the house, prepare for this by wearing a mask or scarf over your face when you go outdoors.

Avoid cigarette smoke. If you smoke cigarettes or live with someone who does, limit your exposure to tobacco smoke. In Vermont, 802Quits provides free support and nicotine replacement to help people quit smoking and vaping. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW, visit or telephone local support at Rutland Regional Medical Center (802) 747-3768.

Avoid strong scents. People with sensitive airways should avoid strong scents. Holiday candles, strong-smelling air fresheners and fabric spray can irritate the lungs. When possible, choose cleaning and laundry products that are fragrance-free. If cleaning or using chemicals, keep the area well-ventilated, take breaks, and wear a protective mask.

The most effective way to improve your indoor air quality is to reduce or remove the sources of indoor pollutants and respiratory triggers. For information about improving air quality, energy costs and heating devices in the home, visit Efficiency Vermont at online. For people with asthma who are looking for more support, contact the In-Home Asthma program at Rutland Regional Medical Center 802-776-5508.

This week’s Health Talk was written by Sarah Cosgrove, RCP, CTTS-M, AE-c, Community Health Improvement at Rutland Regional Medical Center.

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