By Jessica Tanaka
College apartment and dorm living can have an adverse affect on students with asthma because these environments usually contain various allergens that can trigger respiratory problems and asthma symptoms.
Symptoms of asthma are usually progressive in response to triggers such as those commonly experienced as part of dorm living, said Nancy Sander of the Asthma and Allergy Network.
“Dorm life breeds molds, dust mites, bacteria and viruses,” Sander said. “Add liberal doses of perfumes, hair sprays, cigarette smoke and other irritants, and you have a recipe for breathing problems, particularly for those students with asthma and allergies.”
Poorly managed asthma during college can cost career choices and claim lives, Sander said. Students with asthma die every year and most often the deaths were preventable.
Asthma is the eighth most prevalent chronic condition in the United States, according to the American Lung Association Web site. If not managed carefully and treated quickly, the disease can be fatal. Approximately 5,438 Americans died from asthma in 1998.
Dr. Gene Cole, a BYU professor in the health and human performance department, said asthma is a serious, life threatening disease that causes the airways to become restricted as the muscle bands around airways become inflamed and tighten. The constricted muscle bands can literally squeeze the breath out of its victims.
“Asthma is one of our major health problems,” Cole said. “There are 17 million adults and five million children affected, and asthma has been on the rise.”
Cole, who has done extensive research on asthma and preventative measures of allergens, said no one knows what causes asthma. More than one factor contributes to the disease.
“Asthma and disease severity depends upon an individual”s genetics, immunity, health history, nutritional status and environmental exposure to allergens or triggers,” Cole said. “The most common symptoms of asthma include wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, cough and fatigue,” Cole said.
Moving into a new environment, such as a college dorm or apartment building, has the potential to introduce many allergens to asthmatic students, Cole said. Students have to carefully manage the allergens in their new environment.
Dusty, old carpets in apartments can be a huge problem for asthmatics, Cole said. Carpet dust has a high number of allergens. A normal carpet has 100,000 mold spores per gram of carpet dust.
Cole said it is necessary to vacuum carpets regularly with a high-efficiency vacuum cleaner that has a disposable, double-walled bag. These vacuums can collect and trap fine allergen particles as small as two to three micrometers that can contribute to breathing problems.
“Asthma students can live normal, healthy and productive lives – they just have to manage it,” he said. “They should know what can set things off and how to manage their allergens.”
Both Cole and Sander offered tips for students on managing asthma and allergens in their college apartments and dorms.
-Alert roommates and dorm administrators that you have asthma.
-Avoid living in basement apartments where molds and dust mites can thrive in moist environments.
-Keep bedroom clutter to a minimum.
-Do not store things under your bed where they can collect dust for months without being cleaned.
-Get carpets professionally cleaned twice a year.
-Get rid of upholstered furniture or secondhand rugs that attract dust mites.
-If you must share a bunk, sleep on the top level to avoid inhaling the bedding dust from your roommate each night.
-Wash sheets and blankets weekly.
-Eat a balanced diet and get at least eight hours of sleep to keep your immune system up.
-Drink 2 quarts of liquid to make mucous more fluid.
Living in a clean environment is one of the best ways to protect against possible allergens, Cole said. The only problem is that cleaning chemicals can also trigger asthma.
People with asthma should clean in well-ventilated areas, break cleaning into small tasks spread over several days and leave the area quickly after cleaning is completed, according to a pamphlet co-written by Cole.
Heidi Crowther, an asthma program specialist for the American Lung Association, said there are many triggers for asthma, and the responses widely vary from person to person and even for the same person in different situations.
“Everyone has different triggers and responses.” Crowther said. “These could be pets, animal dander, dust, exercise, cold or viral illness, dust, mold, cigarette smoke, strong smells, air pollution and change of weather. ”
Wendy Davis, 23, a graduate in elementary education and an asthmatic since childhood, said she has not noticed an increase in her asthma symptoms since coming to college because she takes precaution to manage her disease.
Davis said her asthma triggers include dust, animals and illness.
“I especially notice a difference when I get sick or let myself get worn down,” Davis said. “I always try to get enough sleep, exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet.”
In addition, Davis said she regularly and thoroughly cleans her room and apartment to keep her triggers to a minimum. She also uses inhalers to curb asthmatic symptoms when necessary.