Lung irritants are substances in the environment that have a negative effect on the lungs. They can be present in everyday substances found indoors and outdoors.

Lung irritants are particles in the environment that can make breathing worse and trigger symptoms such as coughing and wheezing. It is particularly important for people with chronic lung conditions to avoid lung irritants because they can exacerbate symptoms.

Potential irritants can consist of substances found indoors, such as cleaning products containing certain chemicals, dust mites, or secondhand smoke. Outdoor lung irritants can include weather, air pollution, and pollen.

People may also have exposure to lung irritants at their workplace, particularly in the construction, textiles, or farming industries.

In this article, we look at the different types of lung irritants people may come across, how to avoid or manage them safely, and tips to keep the lungs healthy.

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Lung irritants, also known as respiratory irritants, are substances in the environment, both indoors and outdoors, that negatively affect the lungs when people inhale them. These irritants can cause inflammation or other adverse reactions in the respiratory system.

As these substances can cause damage to the lungs, sensors present in the airways trigger sneezing or coughing to try to remove the irritants and reduce the risk of inflammation.

These irritants can affect breathing and may worsen any existing respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In some cases, they can also result in the development of respiratory conditions.

Household lung irritants may include the following:

Cleaning products

Certain cleaning products may contain chemicals that can irritate the lungs, such as:

  • ammonia
  • chlorine bleach
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

According to the American Lung Association, mixing any products containing bleach with a product containing ammonia can create toxic gases that could cause severe health problems. Even some natural fragrances may combine with ozone to create harmful compounds.

People can look at ingredient lists on cleaning products and avoid flammable ingredients, fragrances, or VOCs. People can also open a window for good ventilation when cleaning and avoid using air fresheners.

Using simple ingredients from around the home, such as baking soda, vinegar, warm water, and soap, can make good cleaning alternatives.

Dust mites and pet dander

Dust mites and pet dander can be a trigger for allergies or asthma. To help avoid irritation, people can:

  • clean and dust the home regularly
  • keep any pets away from bedding and soft furnishings
  • wash bedding in hot water each week
  • use allergen-proof bedding and mattresses


Mold produces substances that can cause irritation or an allergic response when people inhale or touch them.

Reducing humidity in the home may help to prevent mold. People can try opening the windows if the air is cooler outside, or in warm weather using air conditioning.

Wood-burning stoves

Wood-burning stoves or fireplaces release smoke that contains tiny particles of pollutants such as:

  • carbon monoxide
  • VOCs
  • nitrogen oxides
  • benzene
  • formaldehyde

These particles can harm the lungs and may cause coughing, wheezing, or exacerbate asthma. Using dry wood and pellets can be a cleaner and more efficient option. People may also choose to switch to gas or electric stoves and heaters instead.

Secondhand smoke

Secondhand smoke can cause respiratory problems, especially in children. It can come from burning any tobacco product, which includes cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. To prevent the risks of secondhand smoke, avoid smoking indoors or in a car.

To help clear air pollutants and create cleaner air indoors, people may want to use an air filter. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, filtering the air to remove pollutants is the most effective way to improve indoor air quality. People may choose to use a portable air filter or HVAC filter.

Certain occupations may expose people to substances that can irritate the lungs. These include:

Particles in the air

Fine particles in the air, or particulate matter, may consist of a combination of substances, such as ash, soot, dust, soil, or dirt. These fine particles can irritate the lungs and are easy to inhale. People in certain occupations may have increased exposure to fine particles if they are working in or around:

  • factories
  • exhaust fumes
  • fires
  • mining
  • construction
  • agriculture
  • smokestacks


Certain products, such as heat insulation, contain a fiber called asbestos. Asbestos is harmful to the lungs when it breaks down and the fibers are airborne. Asbestos can lead to asbestosis, which is a scarring of the lungs.

Most products nowadays do not contain asbestos for safety reasons, but many individuals working in construction and industry roles may still risk exposure to it. If people think they are encountering asbestos at work or at home, they can contact a specialized contractor to examine and remove asbestos.

Coal dust

Inhaling coal dust can scar the lungs in a condition called pneumoconiosis. This can cause shortness of breath and long-term lung damage.

Free crystalline silica

The inhalation of free crystalline silica can scar the lungs and increase the risk of lung disease. People may encounter free crystalline silica in the following environments:

  • mines
  • foundries
  • stone, clay, and glass manufacturing sites
  • blasting operations

Hemp, flax, and cotton dust

The dust from hemp, flax, and cotton can irritate the lungs, causing chest tightness and shortness of breath. People working in the textiles industry, particularly those working with unprocessed cotton, may have exposure to this dust.

Organic dust

Organic dust can include molds, pollens, bacteria, animal feed, and bedding particles, in addition to animal particles such as hair, feathers, and droppings.

Other lung irritants in the workplace can include fumes, vapors, and gases, which may come from pesticides or chemical substances such as paints or cleaning products.

To help prevent exposure to occupational lung irritants, people can:

  • wherever possible, avoid being around lung irritants by eliminating harmful substances or swapping out products for safer alternatives
  • wear a mask and protective gear when working with any airborne dust or harmful substances
  • ensure an expert in occupational health inspects the workplace to check for any risks of lung irritants
  • if working in an environment with lung irritants, see a doctor for an evaluation to check lung health and function and discuss any concerns with them
  • avoid smoking as this can increase the risk of occupational lung disease

Other possible lung irritants can include:


The inhalation of pollen can cause allergies and irritation and may affect epithelial cells in the lungs. People can encounter pollen through trees, grasses, or weeds.

To help minimize exposure to pollen, people can:

  • limit time outdoors and keep windows closed during high pollen counts
  • use air filters to reduce pollen particles that may come into the home
  • reduce pollen on clothes or on the body by showering before bed, washing clothes after being outdoors, and covering the hair when outside
  • clean or wipe down pets after they have been outside
  • dry clothes inside on an airer rather than outside


Different weathers can also affect the lungs. Cold, dry air may irritate the lungs and airways and lead to wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. Hot and humid weather can increase inflammation of the airways and may worsen any existing lung conditions, such as asthma or COPD.

To help minimize lung irritation from the weather, people can:

  • check weather forecasts in order to take any precautions before going outdoors
  • in cold, dry weather, wrap a scarf loosely around the nose and mouth to warm up the air before inhaling it
  • where possible, have air conditioning on in warmer weather in the home or workplace
  • take any medication for existing lung conditions as a doctor prescribes and keep any quick-relief medications to hand

Air pollution

Air pollution consists of harmful substances in the air that can irritate or damage the lungs. Air pollution can include ground-level ozone smog and soot.

The former refers to a chemical reaction that occurs when VOCs react with nitrogen oxide in sunlight. Levels of ozone are usually at their lowest at sunrise and highest in the evening. Soot, or fine particle matter, is tiny droplets in the air that occur from exhaust fumes, power plants, or wood smoke.

Inhaling air pollutants can irritate the airways, which may lead to:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • worsening asthma symptoms

People who may be at higher risk of air-pollution-related health problems include:

  • young children, babies, and older adults, who breathe at an increased rate compared with older children or adults
  • people who are frequently outdoors for work or leisure
  • people with an existing heart or lung condition

To protect the lungs against the effects of air pollution, people can:

  • check air quality forecasts to find out air pollution levels before spending time outdoors
  • avoid exercising outside by high levels of traffic or when air pollution is highest
  • reduce energy use in the home to help tackle air pollution
  • avoid burning wood and trash, and avoid using gasoline-powered engines
  • share car journeys, walk, cycle, or use public transport to reduce emissions

Symptoms of lung irritation may include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • abnormal breathing
  • tight chest
  • chest pain

The American Lung Association offers the following tips for keeping the lungs healthy:

  • avoid smoking and secondhand smoke
  • eliminate sources of indoor air pollution and consider using an air filter
  • check air quality and take precautions to protect against outdoor air pollution, such as avoiding exercising in high-traffic areas
  • prevent the risk of respiratory infections with regular hand washing, practicing good oral hygiene, and getting any recommended vaccines
  • attend regular checkups to monitor lung health
  • stay physically active and exercise regularly to keep the lungs strong and healthy

Substances in the air, both indoors and outdoors, can irritate the lungs when people inhale them. This can include chemicals from cleaning products, tobacco smoke, exhaust fumes, and dust particles. Weather, pollen, and outdoor air pollution can also cause respiratory problems.

To minimize exposure to lung irritants, people can take steps such as using air filters indoors, ensuring good ventilation, and limiting time outdoors during high pollen counts or poor air quality.