That coughing, sniffling and sneezing you're experiencing may be seasonal allergies. Or maybe it's something more sinister.
Medical experts warn that indoor air quality also can affect your health, especially when houses are closed up tight for the winter. Illnesses you attribute to other causes may be originating in your everyday environment — your house could be making you sick.
It's known as "sick-building syndrome" or "building-associated illness," depending on the exposure. Lead paint, pesticides, gases, mites and mold are among the culprits. The more you're exposed to them, the greater your risk of illness.
According to WebMD, sick-building syndrome usually results in a group of symptoms such as eye, nose and throat irritation, stuffiness, a feeling of spaciness, and skin rash.
"These symptoms come and go fairly quickly. You may notice them within an hour or two of entering a building but also notice that they will be gone within an hour or two of leaving a building," says Robert McLellan, M.D., a specialist in environmental medicine quoted in the article.
There is no objective test that measures these symptoms, McLellan says in the WebMD report, so it's more a matter of paying attention to the symptoms and trying to pinpoint when you have them and where you are when they strike.
Building-associated illness, he says, covers a longer range of exposure, when the effects of environmental hazards are not immediately apparent. Exposure to radon, for example, can lead to lung cancer, but it may be years before that happens. However, tests can diagnose abnormalities such as sinusitis, allergies and asthma.
Common Health Issues
These are some of the ailments that can be caused by environmental factors:
» Respiratory symptoms: congestion, aggravated asthma or allergies, sinus infections
» Cognitive issues: foggy thinking, sleep disturbance, frequent headaches
» Emotional changes: feeling agitated or depressed
» Physical symptoms: stomach discomfort, muscle aches, fatigue, rashes, sore throat
Children, the elderly and those with chronic conditions are especially at risk. Elizabeth Sword, former executive director of the Children's Health Environmental Coalition in Princeton, New Jersey, advises thinking about the environment from a child's vantage point.
"The more they're exposed when their organ systems are not fully developed, the more risk they have," she says in the WebMD report.
There are reams of information on common environmental risks, ranging from household chemicals to food poisoning to radon exposure. Here's a quick checklist of 10 of the most common, along with where to seek more information.
1. Tobacco smoke
Long-term exposure to other people's tobacco smoke (or your own) increases your risk for lung cancer, respiratory infections, other lung problems and possibly heart disease. And smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, harms nearly every organ of the body, causes numerous diseases and reduces health in general. Quitting can add years to your life.
Learn more: cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/index.htm
This odorless, invisible gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers and the second-leading cause of lung cancer for the general population. The most common source of indoor radon is uranium in the soil or rock on which homes are built, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. You can purchase a radon test kit at hardware stores for less than $15 to learn how much radon is present and whether or not the levels are high enough to warrant mitigation.
Learn more: cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Guides/Home/The-Inside-Story-A-Guide-to-Indoor-Air-Quality
If your home was built between 1920 and 1978, you may be exposed to asbestos, any of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that were commonly used as a building and insulation material for homes of that era. "The mere presence of asbestos in a home or a building is not hazardous," says the CPSC. "The danger is that asbestos materials may become damaged over time. Damaged asbestos may release asbestos fibers and become a health hazard." The best thing to do with asbestos material in good condition is to leave it alone, says the CPSC.
Learn more: cpsc.gov/safety-education/safety-guides/home/asbestos-home
Many homes built in the U.S. before 1978 contain lead paint, which causes lead poisoning in nearly 900,000 American children each year. If you have a young child at home who is at risk for lead exposure, talk to your physician about having the child's blood tested for lead levels. And if you live in an older home, consider testing for lead paint, advises the Environmental Protection Agency.
Learn more: epa.gov/lead/forms/lead-hotline-national-lead-information-center
Another, more contemporary risk of lead poisoning comes from scented candles. From the wax to the wick to the fragrance itself, most mass-produced scented candles can release harmful chemicals into the air, even when unlit.
Learn more: iqair.com/us/node/4486
5. Combustion gases
These gases, which include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, can cause flu-like symptoms, respiratory illnesses or even death. Among the recommended precautions are installing a carbon monoxide detector; using an exhaust hood over a gas stove; cleaning and maintaining your chimneys and furnace every year, making sure they are properly vented. Never use unvented combustion appliances, such as portable kerosene heaters, indoors.
Learn more: cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Education-Centers/Carbon-Monoxide-Information-Center
6. Water pollution
The U.S. has one of the safest water supplies in the world, but that doesn't mean it's fail-safe. To check the water quality in your area, call the EPA's Drinking Water Hotline at 800-246-4791. If you use a private well, test your water every year for nitrates and bacteria. Depending on where you live, you may also want to test for pesticides, organic chemicals or radon.
Learn more: epa.gov/dwstandardsregulations/drinking-water-contaminant-human-health-effects-information
7. Household chemicals
Some household products may be dangerous if not used correctly. Choose the least dangerous chemical for the job. Keep household chemicals away from children and pets. If possible, store chemicals outside the house and away from living spaces. When purchasing, look for the EPA's "Safer Choice" label, which assures that the product complies with the agency's strict Safer Choice Standard.
Learn more: epa.gov/saferchoice
Try to avoid using chemical pesticides when maintaining your lawn, garden and other landscaping. To avoid insects, store firewood away from the house, keep food in air-tight containers and clean up food spills. The EPA explains that pests, like humans, need three critical elements to survive: food, water and shelter. Before using pesticides, try three simple strategies to banish ants, roaches and rodents from your home: Starve them out (seal up food, clean dirty dishes, keep a tight lid on trash). Dry them out (drain water from a sink, fix leaky faucets). Keep them out (seal cracks along baseboards, repair holes in screens, clean up clutter).
Learn more: epa.gov/safepestcontrol/do-you-really-need-use-pesticide
Water-damaged materials frequently grow molds and other organisms that can cause allergies and other illnesses. To reduce other allergens in the home and fix leaks and moisture problems, don't use a humidifier unless you follow the manufacturer's instructions; keep furry animals out of the house (or at least out of the bedroom); and wrap your mattresses and pillows in allergy-proof covers.
Learn more: epa.gov/mold
10. Food poisoning
Food must be properly prepared and stored to prevent food poisoning. Keep your refrigerator below 40 degrees. Refrigerate cooked, perishable food as soon as possible. Wash cutting boards with soap and hot water after each use. Don't allow raw meat, poultry or fish to come into contact with food that will not be well cooked. Don't eat raw or undercooked eggs. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offers other guidelines.
Learn more: foodsafety.gov/food-poisoning