What causes allergies and asthma?
While asthma and allergies are not the same thing, they do often go hand in hand.
Allergic asthma is a lung condition that is triggered by allergens such as pollen or mould. It causes the muscles in the bronchioles of the lungs to contract, restricting air movement in and out of the lungs.
Allergies more generally are an extreme immune response to an external factor, such as pollen, dust mites, mould and pet dander. Allergic reactions include a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, wheezing, watering eyes, itchy eyes and an itchy throat.
There can be a number of causes of this extreme immune reaction, and often it is simply that the immune system has become over sensitive due to the over-exposure of pathogens, chemicals, processed foods and inflammatory foods. In fact, there seems to be a correlation between the introduction of commercially available refined sugar in the 16th century and rapidly increasing cases of hayfever – today one in five people suffer from this type of allergy!
How are cleaning products related to allergies and asthma?
The role that chemical cleaning products play in allergies and asthma is a little tricky to unpick.
If you already suffer from respiratory allergies and asthma, then studies have revealed that the chemicals in cleaning products can trigger your symptoms. However, there is also evidence to suggest that the use of household cleaning products can contribute to the development of allergies and asthma in the first place. According to Asthma UK, professional cleaners and those who use a lot of cleaning products (like janitors or nurses) are more at risk of developing asthma.
On the other hand, many of these chemicals are strong irritants that may irritate the nose, eyes, lungs and throat, causing symptoms that merely appear similar to asthma and allergies – sneezing, watery eyes and wheezing, to name a few!
So whether these products trigger symptoms, cause allergies in the first place or merely cause irritation that mimics an allergy, it’s clear that there is a link! So what kinds of products and chemicals do you need to look out for?
What are the worst offenders?
Spray cleaners are particularly hazardous because they are incredibly easy to breathe in, especially if you’re using them in confined spaces such as the shower. However, lots of cleaning products also emit fumes that are easy to breathe in too – ever wondered why your toilet cleaner has such a strong smell? That smell is a chemical, and if you can smell it that means you’re breathing it in!
What you will likely find with these kinds of products is that your symptoms can continue long after you’re finished cleaning. This is because chemicals can linger in the air and on surfaces for a long time, often due to poor ventilation. This continual exposure may be why it seems like your allergies never go away!
Check out some of the most common chemical offenders:
This strong-smelling chemical is typically found in window cleaners, though it can also appear in toilet cleaners, oven cleaners and multi-purpose cleaners. It will certainly trigger a reaction for anyone with allergies, asthma or breathing problems. The problem with ammonia in particular is that it is heavier than air so will sink to a lower level – which is especially dangerous if you have pets or small children in the house.
This is an antibacterial agent used to kill bacteria on surfaces and skin – as a result it is often found in antibacterial soaps, sprays and wipes. In fact, triclosan is so potent that it is also used as a pesticide! It can easily cause allergic reactions and irritation to those who are more sensitive.
This tends to be found in glues, varnishes and insulation, but it can creep into household products too! It can cause irritation and allergic reaction in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
It can often hide behind alternative names, so look out for ingredients such as Formalin, Methanal, Methylaldehyde, Methylene Oxide, Formic Aldehyde, Oxomethane Formalin and Phenol Formaldehyde.
This is another chemical typically found in window cleaners and multi-purpose cleaners. The most common reaction to inhalation of this chemical is a sore throat, but it can cause general irritation to the respiratory tract, resulting in wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath.
You’ll probably know chlorine as the chemical added to swimming pools to disinfect them – and from that strong, acrid smell you can only imagine how irritating it can be to the nose, throat and lungs!
Chlorine forms the basis of most bleach – the chemical name of which is ‘sodium hypochlorite’. You’ll therefore find chlorine in plain bleach, as well as toilet cleaners, laundry whiteners and mould removers.
A chemical cocktail
These are just some of the main offenders, but it’s not just individual ingredients that are the problem, it’s the complex concoction of chemicals found in conventional cleaning products! When you think about how long the ingredients lists on cleaning products can be, it’s no wonder our respiratory tract and immune system have a hard time coping with them all!
They linger in the air and on our surfaces for so long too – in fact, the build-up of these chemicals in our homes is a major contributor to indoor air pollution, which can be up to five times worse than outdoor air pollution!
What are the alternatives to chemical cleaning products?
If you’re thinking of ditching the chemical cleaners there are lots of great alternatives!
You can actually use some of the ingredients you have lying around your house in place of a number of these cleaners – white vinegar is a great disinfectant, mould remover and window cleaner. Tea tree oil is also effective against mould, and castile soap makes a great all-round cleaner! Check out our article on the top ingredients you need for green cleaning for more information.
Alternatively, you can just replace your cleaning products with similar products from natural, organic brands. Our favourite cleaning brand is Ecover! Their cleaning products use plant and mineral ingredients to deliver great results with none of the nasty side effects. They are biodegradable and non-toxic, so they won’t harm the environment either!
They offer a huge range of choice, from laundry detergents and softeners, to multi-purpose cleaner, toilet cleaner and oven cleaner! We love this cream cleaner, which has a slightly gritty texture that gives baths, sinks and stainless steel a good scrub without scratching.