If you’re one of the millions of Americans who are allergic to one or several common allergens, you know all too well the misery of year-round sneezing, sniffling, wheezing and watery eyes. Unlike hay fever, which is typically at its peak in the springtime, indoor allergens are present 24/7 and cause problems regardless of the season.
“The three most common triggers for indoor allergies are dust mites, pet dander and mold,” says Jennifer Collins, MD, medical director at the Gramercy Allergy & Asthma in New York City. “There are steps you can take to minimize your exposure and lessen your symptoms.”
The Most Common Indoor Allergens
Here are the likely culprits, along with some tips for coping:
These microscopic insects live wherever there’s dust. Dust is actually made up mostly of the skin we are constantly shedding. And since the bed is a place where we spend a lot of hours (and consequently shed a lot of skin), dust mites are common in pillows and bed linens. It is the proteins within the bodies and feces of the mites that people react to, but these allergens are microscopic. “It’s not about whether or not your house is clean,” assures Collins. “They are just a part of life.”
Tip: Washing your pillows and bedding in hot water frequently can help decrease dust mites. Special cases for your pillows can also help by creating a barrier between you and the allergy-causing mites. However, be careful when you purchase: “The weave of the fabric has to be as tight as 10 or fewer microns in order to be an effective barrier,” says Collins. If you can’t find that information on the label, look for a different product.
Cats and dogs are a very common cause of indoor allergies. The protein in pet dander is what causes your symptoms, and that protein can be sticky and stay in the environment for a long time — even if no animal is currently present. Some breeds will have more or less of the allergy-causing protein, but each person will react differently.
Tip: Keeping pets off the bed can reduce symptoms. If that’s not possible, try to at least keep them off your pillows, and during the day, cover the bed with a sheet that you remove at night. Using a vacuum that contains a HEPA filter can prevent dander from blowing back out once it’s been vacuumed up.
People who live in more humid climates are more prone to issues with mold in their homes, particularly rooms with moisture (e.g., a bathroom or a wet basement). A dehumidifier will help pull water out of the air, which can decrease the amount of mold that grows. Regularly cleaning the walls and shower with a disinfectant can also mitigate mold.
Tip: Since bleach can irritate already inflamed airways and nasal passages, Collins suggests opting for natural cleansers and homemade products involving vinegar. If possible, install a fan in your bathroom that vents to the outside or keep a window cracked.
Other Indoor Allergy Triggers
If the three indoor allergens listed above aren’t causing you problems, here are a few other causes of indoor allergies:
If you live near a highway or busy road, chances are your home will be infiltrated by outdoor air pollution such as ozone and exhaust fumes. Living with a smoker can also exacerbate allergies and asthma. Use an air purifier to reduce the amount of dust circulating. Just be sure to clean or replace filters every couple of months.
Sleeping with down pillows and comforters can also trigger allergies for many people. The same covers that provide a barrier to dust mites may help keep allergies at bay, but if you still suffer from an allergic reaction, switching to synthetic fill will be your best bet.
Cockroaches and Mice
If you have either of these pests in your home, be aware that their droppings can cause allergic reactions. The only real solution is to eradicate them, such as using boric acid to kill cockroaches or mousetraps for mice. Consider contacting a pest control company for professional assistance.
“If you’re feeling sick more than two days out of the week, see your doctor,” says Collins. The doctor can help differentiate whether it’s allergies or actually a cold, before sending you to an allergist if necessary. If you are suffering from allergies, here’s what an allergist can do:
- Perform a simple skin test to determine the causes of your allergies.
- Help you create a plan for avoiding or mitigating your exposure so that you may be able to prevent or treat your allergies without medication.
- Recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications to help manage symptoms, including oral antihistamines, topical steroids and anti-inflammatory nasal sprays.
- Start you on a course of allergy shots (also called immunotherapy). Shots are given at regular intervals over the course of about three years, after which about 85 to 95 percent of people will experience relief for up to seven to 10 years.
Having year-round allergies can leave you feeling short of your best for a good part of the 12 months. Whether you are caring for a child or an adult with allergies, here is one expert tip to consider if you haven’t already: Tear out the wall-to-wall carpets, especially in the bedrooms, and replace them with something more allergy-neutral, such as hardwood flooring. (Note: If your doctor recommends this step, you might even be able to deduct this as a medical expense on your taxes.)