If you sneeze when the seasons change, or dread cats and dogs for their knack at making your upper respiratory tract go haywire, you already know the truth: allergens are unavoidable. They are a part of nature that cause the immune systems of so many Americans (between 40 and 50 million, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to overreact.
Symptoms can be as mild as an itchy nose, or as severe as a life-threatening asthma attack. Angel Waldron, spokeswoman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a non-profit group founded in 1953 that provides free allergy education to patients, said it’s wise for people to get tested for allergies, even if they’ve never experienced symptoms. “If you have a severe allergy, and aren’t aware of it, it can be deadly,” said Waldron, who noted she didn’t learn she was allergic to cats until she was in her early 30s.
Once diagnosed, a patient should discuss an allergen management plan with a doctor, according to Waldron. Though you’ll never eliminate allergens from your environment entirely, there are important steps you should take if you, or someone in your home, is allergic to mold, dust mites, or dander. Read on for some helpful suggestions you can get started on right away.
Mold: An Invasive Species
Where would we be without mold? Life-saving antibiotics are formulated using this fungi, found virtually everywhere in nature. Mold grows on plants and fibers. It travels through the air as microscopic spores, and that’s how it ends up a common component of the household dust that accumulates under your couch. If you could just keep moisture out of your home, this wouldn’t be a problem. But if you’re a homeowner, you know that’s a tall order. What happens when the basement floods during the spring, or the ceiling leaks during winter? It creates water damage--a breeding ground for mold. In nature, mold is a helpful organism that feeds off dead trees and leaves, making way for regeneration. But in your abode, it can cause hay fever; sneezing; runny nose; red eyes; skin rash, and even asthma attacks. Leave a mold infestation alone, and it will spread. It’s important to eradicate it promptly to avoid health risks.
It is necessary to size up a mold infestation before you take action. If an infestation is invading, say, an entire room, you should call a contractor. Contractors have the proper tools and equipment to thoroughly and safely remove the mold.
You’ll be able to get your hands around a smaller job using a bleach-based solution and water, but take the proper precautions to protect yourself from mold exposure.The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends people wear protective gear, including an N-95 respirator, available at most hardware stores, as well as gloves and goggles. Remember: It is crucial that you find the water’s path of entry and repair it, before you start scrubbing away at that mold. Otherwise, you’ll be repeating this process again in a matter of weeks.
There are other steps you can take to reduce the impact mold has on your day-to-day life. Installing an air filter that works in concert with your central air or heating system can improve the air quality in your home. Using allergen bedding, which prevents mattresses and pillows from being infiltrated by mold and other allergens, can noticeably improve allergy symptoms. Dehumidifiers reduce moisture in the air, making your home inhospitable to harmful mold. A dehumidifier should bet set between 35 percent to 45 perfect for optimal results, according to Waldron. Hire a plumber to check your home for leaks at the end of summer. And as fall approaches, it’s important to remove moisture throughout the home, Waldron said. Concentrate on bathrooms, kitchens and basements, which water most often collects. Also, move wood piles and leaf piles, which are mold hot beds, away from your house.
Dander: It’s everywhere the pets are.
You love your pet. Though the feeling is mutual, your furry friend could be making you sick. Waldron said it’s best to keep a pet that has no fur or feathers, like a reptile, if someone in your household has a dander allergy. Waldron said it’s a myth that people can opt for a hypoallergenic dog if they’re allergic to most breeds. “There’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog,” Waldron said, adding that some dogs simply leave less dander-covered fur around the house. “Even whales have dander. If you’re allergic to cats or dogs, you could be allergic to any cat or dog.”
Even if you don’t keep animals at home because you’re allergic, the people in your life probably track the pesky allergen known as dander into your living space when they visit. You can’t put the kibosh on contact with friends and family because they are animal lovers. Removing a beloved, furry animal from your home is equally difficult. So try taking steps to reduce the impact dreaded pet dander has on your health.
First, a little blurb on dander: Pet dander is an enzyme found in animal saliva and urine. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates the U.S. pet population is 100 million, so there’s plenty to go around. Though it’s actually harmless, some people’s immune systems recognize it as dangerous, sparking an allergic reaction. It lands on the surfaces in your home, like carpets, furniture, and bedding, after drying and flaking off animal fur. Pretty gross, but you’ll never notice it unless you are allergic. Those who are, will experience coughing; wheezing; shortness of breath, or a rash on the neck and face. It is also possible for pet dander to trigger severe attacks in asthmatics, which can be life threatening.
To limit the effects of pet allergens in your home, you should minimize the use of soft materials, like plush carpeting and upholstered furniture. Use a low-pile carpet or throw rugs instead, and consider replacing your upholstered furniture set with a leather one. Bedding should be protected with allergen barriers, including mattress and pillow encasements. These fabric barriers prevent allergens, like pet dander, from entering your mattress and pillow. Animals should be kept out of bedrooms entirely, according to Waldron, because people on average spend about 80 percent of time at home in the bedroom. Finally, install air filters on any forced air vents in your home, to prevent dander from circulating. You don’t have to get fancy; cheese cloth will do the trick.
Dust Mites: A Microscopic Nightmare
It’s a good thing dust mites are almost too small to be seen by the human eye. If you got a close-up, you’d be unsettled, knowing these creepy-looking insects are living in your home, grazing on dust. Dust mites are found on every continent, except Antarctica. They feed on flakes of human skin, a major component of the dust floating around in your home. Dust mites thrive in homes because there is an unending food supply. Plus, they are very hardy insects, able to withstand harsh climates. The result is a dust mite population that’s not going anywhere.
As long as you can’t see them, there’s no problem, right? But according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a sizeable minority of U.S. residents—about 20 million—are allergic to dust mites. These nasty critters can trigger severe asthma attacks when they enter an asthmatic’s respiratory system. Waldron noted that roughly 5,000 people die of asthma attacks each year in the United States. So if you or someone in your household struggles with asthma, take proper precautions to keep these bugs at bay. Studies show bedrooms have the highest concentration of dust mites, so mattresses and pillowcases should be covered with Allergen barriers. Be sure to wash blankets and sheets with hot water—at least 130 degrees—on a regular basis. Avoid wall-to-wall carpeting, blinds, wool blankets, down, and upholstered furniture. According to Waldron, hardwood floors are best in the homes of those allergic to dust mites. But if carpeting can’t be avoided, you should vacuum floors at least once a week. The vacuum you use should include a High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, which will catch those miniscule dust mites that could escape the suction of a standard vacuum. Standard vacuums simply recirculate dust mites and other tiny organisms into the air you breathe. Finally, keep the air in your home as dry as possible with a dehumidifier.
Mold, dander and dust mites are the major contributors to allergic reactions at home, but Waldron advises people to beware of pollen too. This springtime nuisance is considered an outdoor allergen, but can easily enter your home through open windows. Use your air conditioning system to cool off, to avoid adding to the flora and fauna inside your house. Also, insects and rodents can contribute to the allergen pool through their droppings, so be sure your home is pest free.
If you’re interested in learning more about allergens and how to mitigate them in your home, visit aafa.org.