Why Are Cockroaches an Indoor Air Problem?

Cockroaches, those unpleasant and unsightly pests, are not just a problem to look at. They also produce substances, or allergens, that aggravate asthma and cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to those substances. The allergens produced by cockroaches are likely concentrated in their fecal matter and in fragments of their body parts. These tiny particles can become airborne and contaminate the air in your home.1

How Do Cockroaches Affect Health?

Cockroach allergens behave like dust mite allergens and stick to heavier particles that quickly settle. These allergens do not remain airborne for long. Activities like vacuuming may stir up allergens that have settled in dust or fabrics. The most common way to inhale cockroach allergen is to breathe in dust or allergens that have collected in pillows, bedding or other dust-trapping fabrics.1

Not only do cockroach allergens trigger asthma and allergies, researchers are exploring evidence that early exposure to cockroach allergen can actually cause asthma to develop in preschool-aged children.1

Who Is Exposed to Cockroach Allergens?

Cockroaches don't need to be present for there to be cockroach allergen in your home. One in five homes with no history of cockroach infestation has a significant level of allergen in dust and fabrics.1

Allergen concentrations are generally highest in kitchen areas where there is plenty of food and water to support cockroach infestations. However, bedroom allergen concentrations may be more relevant. People spend significant time in close contact with their pillow, where they can inhale the allergens that have settled into bedding.1

Socioeconomically disadvantaged people are more likely to be exposed and allergic to cockroach allergens, whether they live in a city or rural area.3

How Can Cockroach Allergens Be Eliminated?

Cockroach allergens spread widely throughout homes, schools and other public places. Simple precautions can protect individuals who are particularly sensitive to cockroach allergens.4

  • Keep your home clean. Keep food scraps off the floor. Be sure to clean under large kitchen furniture (including the stove and refrigerator) where food might get trapped.
  • Reduce humidity. Damp indoor spaces foster the growth of cockroaches and other pests.
  • Target the places where cockroach allergens can collect. Common problem spots are beds, carpet, furnishings and clothing. Encase mattresses and pillows and wash bedding with hot water once a week. Remove unnecessary fabrics like curtains and upholstered furniture.
  • Eliminated infestations. You may need a professional if the problem is bad, but try using Integrated Pest Management techniques.4
  • Remove carpeting. Carpeting should be replaced by smooth flooring in homes with allergic individuals. If this is not possible, regular vacuuming of carpets (two to three times a week) may minimize exposure to allergens. However, vacuuming also can stir up dust and allergens in the carpet and temporarily make air quality worse. People with allergies to cockroaches should not vacuum or be in the room while it is being cleaned.
  1. Institute of Medicine, Division of Health Promotion, Indoor Air and Disease Prevention. Clearing the Air: Asthma and Indoor Air Exposures. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2000; Kanchongkittiphon W, et al. Indoor Environmental Exposures of Asthma: An Update to the 2000 Review by the Institute of MedicineEnvironmental Health Perspectives. 2015; 123: 6-20.

  2. Belanger, Kathleen, William Beckett, Elizabeth Triche, Michael B. Bracken, Theodore Holford, Ping Ren, Jean-ellen McSharry, Diane R. Gold, Thomas A.E. Platts-Mills and Brian P. Leaderer. "Symptoms of Wheeze and Persistent Cough in the First Year of Life: Associations with Indoor Allergens, Air Contaminants and Maternal History of Asthma." American Journal of Epidemiology 158 (2003): 195-202.

  3. Leaderer, Brian P., Kathleen Belanger, Martin D. Chapman, Michael B. Bracken, Elizabeth Triche, Theodore Holford, Diane R. Gold, Young Kim, Thomas Jankun, Ping Ren, Jean-ellen McSharry and Thomas A.E. Platts-Mills."Dust Mite, Cockroach, Cat and Dog Allergen Concentrations in Homes of Asthmatic Children in the Northeastern United States: Impact of Socioeconomic Factors and Population Density." Environmental Health Perspectives 110 (2002): 419-425.

  4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA's Citizen's Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety. March 2005, EPA 735-K-04-002.

  5. U.S. EPA Asthma Triggers: Gain Control: Pests. Accessed August 26, 2015.

Page last updated: March 16, 2020

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