Young woman with allergies in her living room

Indoor allergens and what you can do about them

Our homes are our castles. A haven where we can relax and let go of all our worries. Unfortunately, for those suffering from allergies, that may not be the case, especially when we batten down the hatches for winter.

Organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have found that the air in our homes can be more polluted than outside air. While improvements in construction keep all types of pollutants out of our homes, they are also responsible for holding contaminants inside.

What causes indoor allergens?

A part of this pollution comes from the chemicals used to make building materials, flooring and furniture. However, the vast majority of it comes from situations we create or ignore.

Things like:

  • Fireplaces
  • Mildew / Mold
  • Pesticides
  • Radon
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Trapped pollen

Symptoms to look for

Just about anything that releases gasses or particles into the air can be considered an allergen.

The allergen causes your immune system to attack the substance that is not native to your body. When the allergen particles come to rest in the linings of your eyes, nose or airway, your immune system’s response can trigger an allergic reaction that could include:

  • Chest tightness
  • Cough
  • Bloodshot, itchy, swollen or watery eyes
  • Itchy, stuffy nose
  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Scratchy, swollen throat
  • Wheezing

Don’t be alarmed, there are ways to manage the everyday allergens floating around the average home. Here are a few places to start.

Airflow

Ensuring clean and proper airflow is one of the best ways to remove allergens from your house. Make sure you have a high-quality air filter in your HVAC system and change it every three months. If possible, buy HEPA air filters in high-traffic areas of your home.

Some dust is present in every home. It doesn’t matter how often or thoroughly you clean. However, it would help if you dusted furniture regularly, removing unnecessary dust from knick-knacks and lamps.

If you have carpet, use a high-efficiency HEPA filtration vacuum with a sealed system. When you upgrade flooring, consider replacing with an allergen-friendly carpet or hardwood type of flooring system.

The bedroom

Bedrooms are a perfect collection point for allergens. The large pieces of furniture allow dust to collect in, on and under them. We are continually moving through our bedroom, rotating clothes through the closets and drawers and spending a large part of our time in bed. Unfortunately, mattresses, upholstered furniture or any cloth material are the perfect environment for dust mites, a leading cause of allergy complications.

Many people who believe they’re sensitive to dust are actually sensitive to the dust mites and their waste.

bedroom scene

According to a study by Ohio State University, a used mattress could have anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million dust mites living in it. Dust mites don’t hurt us. However, if you are allergic to them or dust, it can cause havoc on your allergies.

It would be best if you used allergen blocking pillows and mattress covers, washing your bedding material frequently in water at or above 130° F to kill any dust mites. Even placing your pillows in the dryer for 30 minutes at a high temperature can kill dust mites, but avoid excessive heat with memory foam pillows.

Sunlight can also kill dust mites in bedding or throw rugs too large for the washing machine. By simply draping the bedding outdoors on a sunny day, most dust mites can be eliminated from bulky items with UV exposure.

Vacuum carpets and under beds and dressers regularly and avoid letting your pets into your bedroom.

A few words about pets

Pets also spend more time indoors during the winter, shedding dander throughout every nook and cranny in the house. And if your pets need to go outside routinely, outside contaminants and allergens are tracking back inside your home where they become trapped.

tabby cat

Some people are just allergic to a type of animal, and being around that animal triggers their symptoms. However, many people mistakenly blame the animal’s fur for this reaction. It’s not the hair of the animal but the allergens in the animal’s saliva, urine or dander.

If your pet has fur, you should try to bathe them at least once a week with a natural shampoo and brush them outdoors as often as possible.

Try to keep your pets out of your bedroom or enclosed living spaces and vacuum carpets regularly to remove allergens.

After touching or being licked by a pet, washing your hands and face can help keep your allergies from triggering.

The rest of your home

Try to limit your use of industrial cleaners, pesticides and air fresheners. There is a natural solution to almost every cleaning situation in your home.

Dust with a damp mop or rag to capture allergens and prevent spreading them around, and have upholstery and carpets steam cleaned regularly.

If you use these types of chemicals, make sure you follow the directions and store and dispose of the products properly.

It’s recommended that homes have a relative humidity of 30% to 50%. High humidity, standing water, water-damaged materials and wet surfaces can become a breeding ground for bacteria, insects, mildews and molds.

African-American man dusting bookshelves in apartment

Mold requires water to grow and reproduces by releasing spores into the air. The spores can easily travel around your house to find a suitable environment to grow and produce mildew.

The tricky thing about mold – it can grow anywhere and on almost any surface. This means it can be hidden under flooring or behind walls. That is why good air circulation and proper drainage are essential.

Finally, if you smoke, try to find smoking cessation resources to help you quit, and don’t allow smoking in your home.

The biggest threat of indoor pollutants is to people who are inside for long periods. This group includes the elderly, office workers, small children and those with chronic illnesses.

Even if you are successful with the above environmental control measures, you may still have some challenges with symptoms related to allergic rhinitis. One of the simplest preventive efforts to minimize the effects of allergen exposure is using a nasal saline rinse or spray to cleanse the allergens and mucus from the nasal cavity on a routine basis, removing the sources of the inflammation and decreasing symptoms. Many options are available over the counter, are natural and safe for all ages, and do not interfere with any medications.

Listen to your body. If you feel healthier when you are outside, you should do an allergen assessment of your home.

About Author: Tracey Childers

Dr. Childers is a board-certified Otolaryngologist who is fellowship trained in Otolaryngic Allergy and practices at OSF HealthCare Saint Elizabeth Medical Center in Ottawa. A proud native Texan, she practiced in Oklahoma for twenty years prior to joining the OSF HealthCare family.

In her spare time she enjoys spending time with family, singing, traveling and chasing sunsets. She is also an avid participant in community theater.

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Categories: Lung & Respiratory Health