Allergies are merely a seasonal annoyance for some of the 50 million people who have them. But for others, they’re a year-round struggle with watery eyes, a nose that won’t stop running and a horrible stuffy feeling. And for still others, allergies can trigger asthma attacks so severe that emergency care is needed.
If you have allergies, your doctor should prescribe a treatment program that may include antihistamine or decongestant medications or injections for severe cases. But the first line of defense is separating yourself from the allergen that causes the problem. And that starts at home.
“The more people can do to control their exposure to allergens where they live, the better the medications are likely to work,” says Stanley J.Szefler, M.D., director of clinical pharmacology at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine and professor of pediatrics and pharmacology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver. “A careful review of the environment is important to identify critical sites of exposure. If I suspect that environment is a problem, I sometimes ask a person to bring some pictures of the home to help identify sources of allergens,” he says.
Removing allergens may be especially important for young children: Studies show that early exposure to allergens may be linked to later development respiratory problems, such ly. If there’s as asthma. Scientists theorise that one of respiratory problems, such as asthma. Scientists theorize that one of the possible reasons for the steady rise in childhood asthma since the 1970s may be the increasing energy efficiency of our homes. This increased allows little exchange of outside air and hence more contact with allergens.
Your doctor can determine what you’re allergic to by taking a medical history and doing skin tests. But before you can begin avoiding allergens, you need to know what these allergens are and where they lurk. Here’s what you’re up against:
Dust mites These critters (so tiny you can’t see them) dine on little particles of skin that fall from your body. They like to live wherever you spend the most time–notably your bed, your sofa and your carpeting. (Nearly 100,000 of them can live on a square yard of carpet.) A mite produces about 20 minuscule waste pellets a day, containing a protein many of us are allergic to. The mites thrive in humidity and die off when the humidity drops below 50 percent.
Dander It’s not per fur that people are allergic to–it’s the protein in tiny flakes of pet skin and saliva that’s the culprit. Cat allergies are the most common, but you can also be allergic to dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds or other animals. Animal dander is light, easily remains in the air (especially cat dander) and is prevalent wherever pets live.
Cockroaches As many as 60 percent of people with allergies are allergic to cockroach body parts and droppings. Roaches tend to hang out near kitchens, although you can find them anywhere.
Mold Mold thrives in moist areas, such as bathrooms and basements; it reproduces via spores carried in the air, and this is what causes allergic reactions.
Pollen This seasonal problem can invade your home through an open window or plague you in your yard.
So does the idea of allergy-proofing your home sound exhausting? It doesn’t have to be, says Lanny J. Rosenwasser, M.D., head of allergy and clinical immunology at the National Jewish Center and professor of medicine and co-head in the division of allergy and immunology, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver. “You want to do what’s necessary without eroding the quality of your life,” he says.
Some people advocate stripping rooms of all possible allergens, but others think this is overkill. “I have trouble getting hung up over the pennant hanging on the bedroom wall,” says Harold Nelson, M.D., senior staff physician at the National Jewish Center and 1 of 11 members of a panel of experts that developed national guidelines for diagnosing and treating asthma.
Instead, he advises, concentrate on the bed, where you spend about a third of your life with your face nestled up near pillow and mattress that are likely teeming with dust mites and their waste, or animal dander if a pet has been there. “Your bed is critical,” says Dr. Nelson. “If you don’t do anything else, treat the bed and you’ve done the major thing.”
And don’t assume that being allergic means you have to get rid of your beloved pet, which can be traumatic for adults and children alike. Although that’s the easiest way to banish the allergen, in many cases there are ways to coexist with animals, says Thomas A.E. Platts-Mills, M.D., professor of medicine and head of the division of allergy and clinical immunology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville.
So unless your doctor advises otherwise, start small with changing your life to accommodate your allergies. If one step doesn’t work, take the next. To help you, we offer the room-by-room defense plan outlined here. Dealing with carpeting can be a major challenge when you have an allergy-prone person in your household. But deal with it you must: A study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville found that carpeting accumulates allergens at 100 times the rate of a bare, polished floor.
If you have thick or shag carpeting, your best bet is to remove it, particularly in the bedroom and family room and especially in the basement, says Dr. Rosenwasser. If that’s not practical, your next step is to try to keep the carpet as allergen-free as possible. Here’s how.
Keep Fido and Fluffy away. If the problem is animal dander and you have pets that can’t live outdoors, keep them away from the carpet (and furniture!) in living areas, says Dr. Rosenwasser, whose family coexists comfortably with a dog despite their allergy problems. “My wife has trained our dog to never come upstairs, to never get on the furniture. The dog has learned she can come to the edge of the family room and lie down on the wooden floor, but not on the carpeted areas.”
Realize that if your pets–or the pets of previous tenants–have been on the carpeting or furniture, you may have to treat the areas to deactivate the dander. Pet allergens can persist long after a pet is gone.
Time your vacuuming right. Vacuums swirl dust-mite debris and animal dander into the air, where they’re more likely to be breathed in than when sitting quietly on the carpet. Dust-mite particles settle down in about 45 minutes, so you can avoid many problems by having the person with allergies stay away until the dust has settled, says Dr. Nelson. With animal dander, however, this is seldom practical. “Animal dander stays in the air for a long period of time,” he says.
Choose the right vacuum. A central vacuum system avoids many problems by venting particles out-of-doors. The problem with conventional vacuums and regular vacuum bags is that allergen particles pass right through and into the air, says Dr. Nelson. Some filters, however, can trap animal dander and mite debris. HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters are made of tightly woven fibers pleated to increase surface area. You can buy a special HEPAvacuum cleaner, HEPA filters to fit your vacuum, or new vacuum–cleaner bags (non-HEPA) designed to be more impermeable than traditional bags.
“If money is on object, the best choice is a HEPA vacuum cleaner,” says Dr. Nelson. “If money is an object, then buy HEPA filters for your existing vacuum cleaner or try the new bags.” (If the allergic person does the vacuuming, a mask should be worn.)
Avoid water vacs. Vacuums that filter dust into a canister of water aren’t recommended for either dander or mite debris: These vacuums can spew out a fine mist loaded with allergens, says Dr. Nelson. No vacuum removes many mites because they cling so tightly to the carpet.
Avoid shampooing. Soap residue from shampooing can produce an irritating dust, and the wetness can encourage mite growth and mold. Steam cleaning is preferable since the carpet doesn’t get as wet, says Dr. Rosenwasser. “The key thing is to make sure you steam-clean at a temperature greater than 130[degrees] to kill mites,” he says.
Another possibility is a product called HOST, a dry extraction carpet-cleaning system. It’s supposed to reduce mites without adding moisture. As a last resort, your doctor may advise you to treat your carpets with chemical products. Benzyl benzoate, marketed under the name Acarosan Moist Powder, kills mites. “It has to be used correctly,” cautions Dr. Nelson. “It must be left in a carpet overnight.” Because mites tend to die off anyway when the temperatures drop in the fall, the best time to treat carpets is early in the summer, he says. And while this product kills mites, it doesn’t remove allergy-causing dust-mite debris.
Another product, Allergy Control Solution, can be sprayed on both carpets and upholstered furniture. It’s made with tannic acid, which doesn’t kill mites but neutralizes the allergy-causing proteins in mite droppings and animal dander.
“This is most often appropriate for the person who moves into a place where there has been a pet to which she is allergic, or someone who gets rid of her pet and needs to rid her home of allergen,” says Dr. Nelson. Disadvantages include cost and time required, and the fact that tannic acid may darken light areas of the carpet or upholstery.