The dreaded word “allergies” triggers different associations in different people. Some people first think of seasonal allergies, such as pollen or grass, while others are reminded of food allergies, a growing problem today. Indoor allergens, however, may be causing you to have reactions within your own home, resulting in a lot of frustration as you try to determine what the cause is and how to deal with it.
What are Year-Round Allergies?
If you suffer throughout the year from a stuffed or runny nose, sneezing, postnasal drip, watering eyes, or more severe symptoms like wheezing and difficulty breathing, you likely have year-round allergies. Year-round allergies are often referred to as non-seasonal hay fever. Non-seasonal hay fever is most commonly a reaction to various indoor allergens that can be hard to pinpoint or reduce, no matter how clean your house may be.
While you could simply take a daily antihistamine and push through it, there are ways to reduce exposure to these allergens in your home. This is the best course of action to decrease the number and severity of your allergic reactions.
What are the Most Common Indoor Allergens?
There are many different allergens found within your home that may be causing allergic reactions. These include:
Dust mites are microscopic organisms that like to live deep within carpeting, upholstery, curtains, pillows, and mattresses. They do not live on humans, nor do they bite and spread diseases. Of greater concern with dust mites is the feces and husks they leave behind when they die. These materials break down into a very fine powder that becomes airborne when we make the bed, roll over while sleeping, walk across the carpet, or disturb them in any way. When we come in contact with or inhale this powder, it can trigger an allergic response.
Dust mites are so deep within fabrics and carpeting that simply vacuuming or keeping a clean house doesn’t really help reduce their presence. These insidious creatures consume shed skin cells and secretions, something which we cannot control. However, their only method of staying hydrated is through humidity. By keeping the relative humidity of your house below 50% and using dehumidifiers in the more damp areas, you can successfully reduce the number of dust mites.
Another step you can take in the fight against dust mites is to make sure your vacuum has a small particle air filter or a high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filter. Cheaper vacuums simply spread the dust particles around your house, but a good quality filter will capture them and reduce the amount that you are exposed to. You also may want to start damp-mopping your floors each week and using a damp cloth for dusting. These clean techniques help to capture and reduce the amount of dust particles on your floors and other surfaces within your home.
Of all the rooms in your house, the one that dust mites thrive in the most is the bedroom. Dust mites love pillows, curtains, mattresses, and box springs. Since pillows and mattresses are very close to our faces when we sleep, dust mites harboring here provide the greatest risk of future allergic reactions. The best way to fight this problem is by fully encasing your pillows and mattresses in dust-mite-proof covers that zipper closed. You’ll also want to wash those covers, bed linens, curtains, and any uncovered pillows in hot water once a week then dry them at a high temperature to kill any dust mites that may remain in them.
If you live in an area with high humidity, you likely understand the struggle of preventing mold growth in your home. There are such large amounts of mold spores in the air, especially in the spring and fall, that it’s common for them to enter your home through open windows and doors. Molds can also grow in the damper areas of our houses, such as the bathroom, basement, attic, crawl spaces, drains, and even in the soil of your potted plants. If you encounter a musty smell in any area of your home, it is likely that there is mold growing there even if you can’t see it yet. Mold grows fast and can be hidden within your drywall or even behind wallpaper.
The main method to combat mold is the same as with dust mites — decrease the relative humidity in your home to under 50% and use dehumidifiers in damper areas. However, there are other things you can do as well. Keep an eye out for leaks or water damage (and fix them promptly!) and install and use an exhaust fan in the bathroom to help with circulation. It is recommended to avoid using wallpaper in the bathroom, opting for wall tile or mold-resistant enamel paint instead. Make sure to use a squeegee or clean towel to dry out your shower and tub after use and replace your shower curtain if any mold appears on it. In the basement, keep any storage items, games, or toys in plastic bins rather than in cardboard boxes.
When it comes to your houseplants, there are some simple solutions to keeping mold out of the soil so that you don’t have to remove the plants from your home. When you bring a new plant into your house, make sure to repot it in sterile soil and dispose of the soil it came with. A lot of the mold in house plant soil comes from wherever you purchased the plant, or it grows because of over-watering. Always allow the top two inches of soil to dry out before you water again.
If the soil is constantly wet, it is highly likely to grow mold. If you’re still worried about the soil even after decreasing the amount of watering, sprinkle a small amount of cinnamon or baking soda evenly over the surface of the soil. These act as an anti-fungal and can be an extra layer of protection from mold. You should also make sure that your plants are getting lots of natural sunlight and good air circulation.
Probably the most common indoor allergen affecting many of us comes from the dander, or skin-shedding, of our pets, more than from their actual fur or hair. We can also experience allergic reactions to the saliva and/or urine of cats, dogs, and rodents.
The main source of this allergen is a protein secreted in the sweat glands that then is present on shed skin, and in lesser amounts, within the saliva and urine. Because dander causes the allergic reaction rather than the fur/hair, no animal is truly hypo-allergenic, and a sensitive person may still have an allergic reaction after exposure to an animal, regardless of whether it has short or long hair or is considered non-allergenic.
Obviously, we don’t want to remove our pets from our homes and even keeping them confined to certain rooms won’t make much difference as the dander is so light it easily spreads throughout the house. Using a vacuum with a small particle or HEPA air filter can make quite a difference. Other solutions include washing your pet’s bed and toys in hot water on a regular basis and making your furniture off limits to your pets. If you have the time, bathing and brushing your pet weekly can also reduce the presence of the protein on the dander.
What Else Can Help Reduce Allergens?
Carpets are a major source of dust mites, pet dander, and other allergens, so if you struggle with allergies in your home, it would be a good idea to remove any wall-to-wall carpeting and opt for hardwood, tile, or linoleum instead. These types of flooring are easy to damp-mop regularly. If you like the look of area rugs in your home, make sure to choose ones that can be washed in hot water.
If you must have carpet in your home, try to go for a low-pile carpet, making sure to vacuum it weekly with a good quality vacuum. Shampooing or steam cleaning the carpet every now and then is also a great help to keep indoor allergens at bay. Choosing furniture made of leather, wood, metal, or plastic that is easy to clean, rather than upholstered furniture, also significantly reduces the amount of dust mites and pet dander within your living space.
When it comes to creating an allergy-friendly home, the biggest help is having proper ventilation and low humidity. Using air conditioning in the summer and keeping your windows and doors shut can help prevent mold spores and pollen from getting inside. An air purifier with a HEPA filter can help remove any allergens that do get in.
Keeping your home allergy-friendly really does come down to many small choices and actions working together to significantly reduce the amount of allergens within your home, allowing you to enjoy your living space year-round.