If you have asthma, your immune system is primed to overreact as soon as you encounter a substance it has deemed dangerous, be it dust mites, pollen, animal dander, or some other thing that is actually pretty harmless. When you happen upon one of these triggers, your airways tighten, as do the muscles around them, and they also spew out more mucus than they should. The result: You wind up with asthma symptoms like trouble breathing, a weird whistling sound that happens as you try to get air in and out (wheezing), chest pain and tightness, and coughing.
The first step in warding off these symptoms is having a solid asthma action plan, which should outline the medications necessary to keep your asthma to a minimum. But you may also be able to make some changes at home to reduce the odds that you’ll encounter triggers in the first place. “These changes are tremendously important,” Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, tells SELF. Here are a few tweaks to consider.
1. De-clutter your place.
Knickknacks, books, and the like serve as a great resting place for dust mites, which are microscopic organisms that can trigger allergies and asthma, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) explains. “You can’t clean clutter well,” Dr. Casciari points out. “But if you walk into a room that’s de-cluttered, you can clean it.”
So, get rid of any items strewn about that you don’t actually need or that you can store more efficiently, like in plastic bins instead of out and about in your living spaces.
2. Try to clean at least once a week.
“Dust mites, molds, and various allergens accumulate on a daily basis. The more often you remove them, the less likely you’re going to react to them,” Dr. Casciari says. This is why the Mayo Clinic recommends that you clean your place at least once a week. That means dusting (with a damp rag, since that’s more efficient at sopping up dust than a dry one), mopping, vacuuming, all that good stuff.
If you love cleaning, you’re all set here. (Also, teach us how.) If not, this is still an essential part of keeping asthma symptoms at bay, so cue up interesting podcast episodes, put on an energizing playlist, or do whatever else it takes to make cleaning a more enjoyable—and frequent—experience.
3. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
Vacuuming is important, period. But if you want to tackle allergens like dust mites in the best way possible, consider getting a vacuum that has a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, the AAAAI says. This kind of filter is clutch at snagging tiny particles that others may miss.
4. Wear a mask when you clean.
The thing about cleaning is that it can launch your asthma triggers into the air—and closer to your mouth, nose, and airways by extension. That’s why it’s a good idea to protect yourself by wearing a mask when you clean, the Mayo Clinic says.
In a perfect world, you’d use an N95 mask, Dr. Casciari adds. This mask creates a physical barrier between your mouth, nose, and triggers in the environment and is great at filtering out teeny particles, the Food and Drug Administration explains.
5. Use a dehumidifier (at least in your bedroom).
Substances like mold spores and dust mites thrive in warm, damp climates. So, if you live in a wet or humid area, it’s a good idea to buy a dehumidifier to keep your home’s air from getting too muggy, pulmonologist Ryan Thomas, M.D., director of the Multidisciplinary Severe Asthma Team at Michigan State University, tells SELF. It’s best to have your home’s humidity between 30 to 50 percent, the AAAAI adds.
6. Keep your windows closed when there’s a ton of pollen outside.
It feels great to open your windows and get some fresh air, but doing so is basically inviting pollen to camp out in your home. That’s why it’s really best to shut your windows and turn on your air conditioner when you need to cool down and the pollen count is high. (Many weather sites and apps have pollen trackers you can use.) Your A.C. basically acts as a filter that helps to reduce the amount of pollen that’s circulating in the air, the Mayo Clinic says. Not only that, your A.C. can help reduce your exposure to dust mites and mold because it reduces your home’s humidity, too.
7. Think about getting allergy-proof covers for your bed.
If you just have a mild sensitivity to dust mites, you’re probably OK to do without this one, Dr. Cascari says. But if they’re a severe trigger for you, you might want to look into dust-proof covers for items like your mattress, box spring, and pillowcases, the AAAAI says. “It’s just another attempt to reduce your allergen exposure,” Dr. Casciari explains. Here’s more information about what to look for when it comes to allergy-proof covers for your bed and its accessories.
8. While you’re at it, only use washable window coverings if possible—then actually wash them.
It’s a good idea to invest in washable curtains and blinds and follow through on washing them seasonally to get rid of dust, the AAAAI says. Yes, it sounds like a pain. Better that kind than the type that may arise during an asthma flare.
9. Keep areas like your bathroom and kitchen as dry as possible.
Mold spores develop in damp areas like your bathroom and kitchen, so it’s smart to clean and dry these spots regularly, according to the Mayo Clinic. In a perfect world, you’d do things like towel-dry your tub after every use, scrub any mold you see forming on or around your tub and faucets, regularly use an exhaust fan in your kitchen and bathroom to reduce moisture, and toss moldy shower curtains and bathmats ASAP, the AAAAI says. But, hey, no one’s perfect, so just do your best.
Also, if you notice any leaks forming, fix them quickly if you’re handy (or get a professional on the case if necessary), Dr. Thomas says. They create the perfect environment for mold to take hold.
10. Sorry, but you should keep pets out of your bedroom.
If animal dander (proteins in animals’ dead skin) is an asthma trigger for you, but you can’t bear to part with the furry love of your life, you should at least ban them from the bedroom. It might feel cruel, but your respiratory system matters more than cuddles.
While you sleep, you spend hours exposed to any allergens hanging out in your bedroom, Dr. Casciari explains. If your pet has been cavorting around in that space, it can be bad news for your airways (and your sleep quality, if your resulting asthma symptoms wake you up).
Washing your pet twice a month may also help, the AAAAI says, although that may not be feasible, depending on the animal. (Yeah, you’re telling me, says basically everyone with a cat.)
11. Don’t leave out dirty dishes or food.
Hey, here’s something gross to remember at 1:00 A.M. when you can’t sleep: Cockroaches (and their waste) are actually a very common allergen. Try to avoid these pests by washing your dishes regularly, putting away food ASAP, and sweeping up crumbs instead of pretending they’ll mosey over to the trash themselves.
12. Wash items like sheets, pillowcases, and rugs at least once a week.
Be honest: How often do you currently wash these things? You don’t even need to tell us. Just know that, if it’s less often than once a week, it’s time for a change. To cut down on dust mites and other allergens, you should wash these objects weekly in 130 degree Fahrenheit water, the AAAAI says.
13. Think about getting rid of your carpets if it’s really necessary (and you can swing it financially).
Dust mites love to settle into carpets. This is another reason why vacuuming is so key, Dr. Casciari says. But if you live in a place that has wall-to-wall carpeting, think it’s contributing to your asthma, and regular vacuuming doesn’t seem to be helping, it might be worth removing the carpet if your budget allows for it. “Removing carpets can be a last-ditch intervention for those with poorly controlled asthma and dust allergies,” Dr. Thomas says.
Of course, keep in mind that whether or not these tips will help depends on your specific triggers, Dr. Thomas says.
If your asthma is only exercise-induced, for instance, doing all of the above may not make an enormous difference for your condition. (It probably will make you feel like an actual domestic superhero, so there’s that.) But if your symptoms emerge in response to matter like dust mites, pollen, and animal dander, the above tips may help you put asthma in its place by keeping triggers out of yours.