Itchy, watery eyes, congestion and a runny nose are all-too-familiar realities for the vast number of Americans who suffer from allergies. Whether it’s springtime pollen counts in your garden, ragweed in the fall, or dust mites in your comforter that dictate your level of misery, keeping allergens under control in your home environment is a necessity, not a luxury.
This issue is incredibly wide reaching, and if you don’t suffer from allergies yourself, there’s a good chance someone close to you does.
In fact, about 50 million Americans, or one in five, suffer from allergies, making it the fifth leading chronic disease among all ages, and the third most common among children under 18, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) reports.
Calling it one of America’s “most common, yet often overlooked, diseases,” AAFA points out that allergies result in close to 4 million missed workdays each year, which amounts to more than $700 million in lost productivity and nearly $7 billion in medical costs annually.
What Causes Allergies, and Who is Most at Risk?
All allergies are the result of an abnormal immune response, which prompts your immune system to overreact to an ordinarily harmless substance, such as dust, mold or animal dander.
When this happens, your body releases IgE, antibodies that normally help protect you from disease-causing organisms, which binds to the allergens. This, in turn, causes your body to release chemicals including histamine, which causes most allergy symptoms.
While anyone can develop allergies, you’re more at risk if you have family members with allergies or asthma. Children with one allergic parent have a 50 percent chance of developing allergies themselves; if both parents have allergies, the risk increases to 75 percent.
There are many different types of allergens, ranging from food and drugs to latex and insects, but in the United States the most common type of allergy is known as “indoor/outdoor.” Affecting about 40 million Americans, the most common indoor/outdoor allergy triggers include:
- Tree, grass and weed pollen
- Mold spores
- Dust mite and cockroach allergies
- Cat, dog and rodent dander
If your allergies are present year-round, and appear regardless of pollen counts or seasonal fluctuations, it’s likely indoor sources, such as mold or dust mites, are to blame.
No matter what your “poison,” the good news is that there are simple steps you can take to keep your home as allergy-free, and therefore as comfortable and healthy, as possible for you and your family.
Your Plan for an Allergy-Proof Home
The simplest way to tackle allergens is to first identify your triggers. That way, you can focus on eliminating those specific sources in your home. To do this, keep a detailed journal listing your symptoms, times they occur and any related allergen exposures that could be causing them. By process of elimination, you may be able to determine your triggers.
You can also make a visit to your physician’s office or allergy specialist. There they can give you a skin test, a blood test, or both, to help you pinpoint exactly which allergens you are sensitive to.
If you’re sensitive to more than one allergen, which is common, if you have multiple family members with different allergies, or if you’re not sure what is causing your allergic symptoms, you may want to try implementing the majority of the tips below. This will give you your best chance of eliminating allergic triggers at their source — before they cause uncomfortable symptoms.
Throughout Your Home
1.Replace wall-to-wall carpeting with wood, tile or linoleum floors and throw rugs that can be washed regularly in hot water. If you choose to use carpeting, choose those with tight piles instead of shag or loose-pile carpeting. Floors should be wet mopped regularly.
2. Clean curtains regularly, or opt for more allergy-friendly shades instead.
3. Vacuum and dust your home regularly. Your vacuum should have a special filter, such as a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, designed to capture dust mites and other allergens. Use a damp cloth for dusting, and wear a filtering mask while cleaning, as the activity will stir allergens up into the air.
4. Keep upholstered furniture and other accessories to a minimum.
5. Use a humidifier or air conditioner (set to “recirculate”) to keep the humidity levels in your home at 50 percent or less. The fluid reservoir of your humidifier must be cleaned often (at least twice a week) to prevent mold from growing.
6. Be diligent about keeping moist areas (such as your bathroom, kitchen and basement) as dry as possible.
7. Get rid of houseplants, or keep only a few, to reduce mold spores.
8. Keep cockroaches, rats, mice and other pests under control. Tips include using boric acid for elimination of cockroaches and keeping all food and garbage tightly covered.
9. If a pet allergy is the problem, bathing your pet once a week may help reduce airborne dander. A non-allergic family member should be in charge of regular brushing (do this outside) and any cleaning of the litter box or cage.
10. Consider using an air filter designed to catch allergens (keep in mind that this should not be your sole source of allergy-proofing, as many allergens exist on surfaces in your home, along with the air).
In Your Bedroom
11. Wash your bedding (sheets, blankets, comforter, mattress pad, uncovered pillows, etc.) in hot water regularly (at least once a week) to help remove dust mites. Temperatures must be at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit to kill dust mites.
12. Use dust-proof covers for your mattress, box spring and pillows. These zippered cases enclose dust mites so they cannot irritate you.
13. Keep pets out of your bedroom and keep your door closed to help keep pet dander out.
14. Place a dense material, such as cheesecloth, over your heating and air-conditioning vents to help filter incoming allergens.
In Your Bathroom
15. Use an exhaust fan or open a window to keep moisture levels under control.
16. Scrub your bathtub, shower and sink regularly, as fungi can live on soap scum and in grout.
17. Remove any carpeting or upholstered surfaces, which will help keep moisture to a minimum.
For Your Kids
- Wash stuffed animals in hot water on a regular basis.
19. Check daily pollen and mold counts, and spend as little time outdoors as possible when counts are high. You’ll also want to avoid exercising outdoors during peak allergy seasons.
20. Keep windows and doors closed to keep pollen and other outdoor allergens from coming indoors.
21. Wash your clothing, shower, and wash your hair immediately after you’ve been outdoors to help remove pollen.
22. Get rid of piles of leaves or firewood, which promote mold growth.
23. Where a dust mask, long sleeves, gloves and protective glasses when mowing your lawn or gardening (or have a non-allergic family member do these tasks).
24. Keep grass trimmed to around two inches (this will help keep pollen from blowing around).
25. Be choosy about your outdoor plants. Plants that are pollinated by insects generally have heavier pollen, which will not travel through the air as easily and therefore are much better for people with allergies. Avoid those that “mate” by releasing pollen grains into the air. An expert at your local nursery should be able to help you find the more allergy-friendly plant varieties available.
While allergies typically do not go away, following the tips above can make a dramatic improvement in your symptoms. For times when you need some fast relief, try using a neti pot or bulb syringe along with a natural saline solution to flush irritants and mucus from your nose and sinuses.
Overall, however, eliminating allergens at their source, and avoiding triggers as much as possible, is really your best plan of attack.