Gardening is a great way to keep fit and flexible - even a short session of planting, pruning, weeding or digging counts towards the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week. And who can question the benefits of getting out in the fresh air?
If you're a keen gardener, having asthma doesn't mean you can no longer enjoy your hobby. Even if you find it can trigger your asthma symptoms, there are lots of steps you can take to lower your risk of these symptoms.
First, it's useful to understand why gardening can set off asthma symptoms. It's because there are various allergens (substances that cause an allergic reaction) found in gardens that can be triggers. Common ones include:
Pollen is a powder-like substance produced by some trees, plants, grasses and weeds that's harmless to most people. One in four people have hay fever, an allergy to pollen, which means the proteins in pollen cause the immune system to overreact and produce a substance called histamine. This chemical causes the nose, eyes, throat and sinuses (small air-filled cavities behind your cheekbones and forehead) to become swollen, irritated and inflamed, leading to symptoms such as sneezing, running nose and itchy red eyes. Roughly 80 per cent of people with asthma tell us they also have hay fever and if you're affected by both, the reaction caused by pollen can make asthma symptoms worse. Having a blocked nose may also trigger asthma symptoms, because when you breathe in through your mouth, the air you're inhaling is colder and drier, which in some people can cause asthma symptoms.
Some people with asthma find their symptoms are triggered by mould spores. Outside in the garden, mould can grow on rotting logs and fallen leaves, in compost piles and on grasses and grains. Normally, when people breathe in mould spores, their immune system helps get rid of them by causing coughing or sneezing. For some people with asthma and/or hay fever who are sensitive to mould spores, this reaction can cause symptoms to get worse.
- Strongly scented flowers and shrubs
Some people tell us the smell of some plants and flowers can trigger asthma symptoms.
Some people with asthma find that getting active triggers their asthma. Exercise and activities like gardening are more likely to trigger asthma symptoms if your asthma isn't well managed. If your symptoms come on only after you've been gardening or doing other kinds of activity, let your GP or asthma nurse know.
Is it possible to lower the risk of asthma symptoms when you're gardening?
It's impossible to avoid all the triggers found in the garden. Pollen and mould spores are invisible to the naked eye and, because they're carried on the wind, you may be exposed to them any time you go outside. But that doesn't mean you have to avoid your garden. Instead, try a few practical steps that can help reduce your risk of symptoms.
1. Take our asthma attack risk checker. Most people who are at risk of a potentially fatal asthma attack don't realise that they're at risk. In just three minutes, our test will reveal your risk of having an asthma attack and tell you how you can reduce it.
2. Manage your asthma well. This is the best way to reduce the risk of garden allergens making your asthma symptoms worse. You can manage your asthma by:
- Taking your medication as prescribed and discussed with your GP or asthma nurse
- Using a written asthma action plan
- Going for regular asthma reviews with your GP or asthma nurse
- Keeping your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you when you're gardening, in case you have symptoms
3. Manage your hay fever. Research shows that anyone with asthma who also has hay fever can reduce their risk of an asthma attack, or being hospitalised, if they treat their hay fever. This could include using nasal steroids, anti-histamines or anti-inflammatory eye-drops; so ask your pharmacist or GP which treatment(s) are right for you.
Other steps that may help
- Leave the allergens outside!
Put on a hat to stop your hair gathering allergens, and glasses or wraparound sunglasses to help prevent allergens getting into your eyes. Remove your gardening clothes before you go back inside, to help prevent the spread of allergens indoors. Have a shower (or at least wash your hands) as soon as you come back indoors.
- Avoid gardening during your pollen season
People are allergic to different pollens, which are released at different times of year, so it may be worth avoiding gardening when you're most affected. Also remember that pollen counts are generally higher in the early morning and late afternoon/early evening so it may be better to avoid being outside at these times if possible.
- Watch the weather
It's likely there will be more pollen in the air on hot, dry, windy days, so avoid gardening in this sort of weather if you're affected by pollen. And avoid gardening just before or after a thunderstorm. Although it's not fully understood why, it's thought that when the humidity is high, the windy conditions during a thunderstorm can cause high levels of pollen and mould spores to be swept up high into the air where the moisture breaks them into much smaller pieces. As the pollen and mould particles then settle back down, these smaller pieces of pollen and mould can be breathed into the smaller airways of the lungs where they irritate the airway and trigger asthma symptoms.
- Read the instructions
If you have asthma and are using any products in the garden, for example, patio cleaners or weed control sprays, and the instructions say to use a mask, it’s a good idea to protect yourself by wearing one.
The low-allergen garden
You can plan your garden to help reduce your risk of asthma and hay fever symptoms. This won't be enough on it's own, as you'll never be able to get rid of all allergens in your garden, and pollen and mould spores can blow in from further afield. But, alongside taking your asthma and hay fever medicines as prescribed, and taking the other precautions listed above, having a low-allergen garden can help to lower your risk.
Here are some top tips:
- Plants with bright flowers are generally pollinated by insects. People with asthma are less likely to be affected if they plant these because the pollen is hidden inside the petals so it is more difficult to breathe in. Examples include: foxgloves, honeysuckle, lavender, jasmine, sweet William and dahlias. You can find a full list here.
- Plants with small or feathery-looking flowers are generally pollinated by the wind. It's a good idea for people with asthma and hay fever to avoid planting these as the pollen is lighter and easier to breathe in. Examples include: ornamental grasses, such as pampas and carex; trees, such as elm and oak
- Avoid planting trees or shrubs with catkins (long, drooping clusters of flowers without petals), such as hazel, birch or alder trees as they produce large amounts of pollen in the spring.
- Avoid ferns, as they produce spores that can affect some people with allergies.
- Consider a low-maintenance garden with paving, decking or pebbles if grass is a trigger for you.
- Keep your lawn short if you have one to prevent it producing flowers, which release pollen.
- Ask someone without a grass pollen allergy to mow the lawn for you and ask them not to leave grass cuttings on the lawn.
- Keep your compost heap covered and avoid disturbing it to reduce your risk of inhaling mould spores.
Last updated April 2016
Next review due April 2019