COVID-19 Cleaning Practices Could Be Making Your Asthma Worse

Close up of a gloved hand spraying a bottle of cleaner.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study has linked an increase in home cleaning and disinfecting amid the COVID-19 pandemic to worsening asthma symptoms.
  • The researchers theorize that volatile organic compounds in cleaning products are likely the cause of respiratory irritation in people with asthma.
  • While it's not clear whether COVID-19 can be spread on surfaces, face masks, handwashing, and social distancing continue to be the most effective defenses against the virus.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, people dashed to get ahold of Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer to clean their homes. But a December study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice found that as more household disinfectants were introduced, people with asthma were negatively affected.

The study's findings indicate there is a connection between intensive cleaning and an increased risk of an asthma attack. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, surveyed 795 participants about their home cleaning practices and the condition of their asthma from May through September of 2020.

The researchers asked participants about cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing—including how often they washed their hands, used hand sanitizer, or cleaned with household disinfectants (either commercially manufactured or simple bleach and water combinations)—both before and after the start of the pandemic.

The study data had some limitations: it was self-reported by people who had already been diagnosed with asthma and there was no control group of people who did not have asthma.

The researchers also asked the participants how often they had episodes of uncontrolled asthma symptoms, including how often they used rescue inhalers.

Key findings from the survey included that:

  • More than 95% of participants said that they washed their hands more often after the onset of the pandemic.
  • About 60% of the participants reported using household disinfectants more often. For disinfectant wipes, usage increased by 138%.
  • The use of other solutions such as bleach and water or commercial cleaning sprays also increased significantly.
  • Nearly 40% of participants reported having an asthma attack in the last four weeks of the study period.

What This Means For You

Proper sanitation can help keep our homes and offices free of COVID-19. However, if you struggle with asthma or other respiratory conditions, be mindful of the cleaning products you use. Options like hydrogen peroxide or 70% alcohol are less likely to worsen your symptoms. If you are using more irritating commercial cleaners, make sure that there is proper ventilation to lessen the effects of VOCs, which are known to trigger asthma attacks.

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds?

Co-author of the new study, Sharmilee Nyenhuis, MD, director of the Allergy/Asthma/Immunology clinics at Illinois Health, tells Verywell that while disinfectants are a great idea, many of the chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has certified can kill coronaviruses contain known asthma irritants called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

According to the EPA, VOCs are "compounds that have a high vapor pressure and low water solubility."

VOCs are gasses that are typically emitted from certain solids or liquids, such as some cleaners, varnishes, paints, and solvents. They can also be found in cosmetics, furniture, and hobby products, among thousands of other items. The EPA's Substance Registry List contains all products that contain VOCs.

VOCs can have various side effects. They can trigger asthma attacks, cause headaches and fatigue, and damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. VOCs are more dangerous indoors where the concentration is higher. If you have to use a product that contains VOCs, try to use it outside where the airflow can lessen the effects.

"There are other options that have been shown to kill COVID on surfaces, such as hydrogen peroxide and 70% isopropyl alcohol," Nyenhuis says. "Neither of those disinfectants has VOCs, and they work just as well as commercial cleaners."

Keep Masking, Handwashing, and Social Distancing

Research has since shown that the COVID-19 virus is not as easily transmissible on hard surfaces as originally believed. However, the authors of the study, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), still recommend disinfecting the high-touch areas of your home.

Using commercials cleaners several times a week may increase the likelihood of an asthma attack, but using less irritating options like hydrogen peroxide or isopropyl alcohol can help mitigate the effects.

Nyenhuis stresses that the best defenses against COVID-19 are washing your hands after using the bathroom and before eating or touching your face and practicing social distancing.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Eldeirawi K, Huntington-Moskos L, Nyenhuis SM, Polivka B. Increased disinfectant use among adults with asthma in the era of COVID-19 [published online ahead of print, J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. S2213-2198(20)31402-1. doi:10.1016/j.jaip.2020.12.038

  2. United States Environmental Protection Agency. What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

  3. Goldman E. Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites [published correction appears in Lancet Infect Dis. 2020 Jul 30;:]. Lancet Infect Dis. 20(8):892-893. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30561-2

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Guidance For Cleaning and Disinfection Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes.

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.