What are airborne irritants?


by J. Christopher Lewis, M.D.

The air we breathe is a mixture of gases and particles. These substances, as well as the temperature and humidity of the air, can affect the mucus membranes of the body’s eyes, nasal passages, and bronchial tubes. We may categorize airborne substances as falling into one of two broad categories: aeroallergens and irritants. Aeroallergens (airborne allergens) include pollens from trees, weeds, and grasses, molds, insect parts, and animal proteins. Irritant substances include dusts and smokes of any type, strong odors, fresh newsprint, soot, sulfur dioxide, photochemical smog, et cetera. While only allergic individuals will be bothered by exposure to the airborne allergens, anyone could be troubled by exposure to an irritant depending on how high the concentration is. Just as some people have sensitive skin, other have sensitive mucus membranes that are very easily irritated. Many individuals are bothered by both aeroallergens and irritants.

People sensitive to irritants should try to avoid known irritants whenever possible. Proper ventilation and filtration are important in reducing irritant levels. One should try to prevent dust accumulation and to avoid heavy dust exposure where possible. If avoidance is not possible, then a mask should be worn to reduce the personal exposure level.

It is important to check and clean or replace the filters on heating and air conditioning systems regularly. Air purifiers are available as freestanding units. If employed, it is important to get a purifier that is powerful enough to clean the air in the room in which it will be used, and it should be of a HEPA type, which is a high- efficiency particle removing system. Air purifiers which produce ozone are not recommended, as ozone is a respiratory irritant.

Some of the same medicines that are used to treat airborne allergy symptoms may be used to treat symptoms in patients who are sensitive to airborne irritants. In general terms, the response to the medications to control the reaction to irritants is not as dramatic as it is in those with allergy related symptoms.

Posted in: Allergens

Allergy and the Environment