If you struggle with indoor allergies of any kind, you may head to your medicine cabinet first for relief. Over-the-counter allergy drugs are widely available, and you may have even visited your doctor for a prescription drug. But can you treat allergies effectively without relying on medication? Yes, and it’s rather easy to do by taking some measures around the house.
While outdoor allergens like pollen from trees, grass and weeds tend to hog the spotlight this time of year, there are plenty of pesky allergy triggers hiding all year long in the place the majority of people spend the most time, our homes. The most common of these sneaky indoor allergens are dust mite droppings, animal dander and mold.
What are things you can do without hitting the medicine cabinet? “These approaches generally focus on trying to reduce symptoms by decreasing the amount of allergens that people are exposed to,” explains Merritt L. Fajt, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Most are relatively easy, but, particularly in the case of pets, it is sometimes difficult to completely avoid exposure.”
Relief from Dust Mites
These are tiny insects that “cannot be seen with the naked eye” that “live and multiply easily in warm, humid places,” says Olajumoke Fadugba, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Particles from dust mites are typically found in bedding like pillows and mattresses, as well as carpeting and upholstered furniture. “When anyone vacuums, walks on a carpet, sits on a chair or disturbs bedding, dust mite particles float into the air and you breathe them in–this can trigger allergy and asthma symptoms,” says Dr. Fadugba.
Though it isn’t possible to get rid of these entirely, taking the following steps can help reduce exposure to them and ease your symptoms. Many pertain to the bedroom since we spend up to a third of our day there.
- Wash sheets, pillowcases and other bedding once a week in hot water (130° F).
- Use airtight, dust-proof covers for pillows, blankets, mattresses, and box springs. Avoid plastic covers, as they tend to tear quickly and do not “breathe.”
- Look for “dust catchers” in the bedroom: Cloth-covered furniture, heavy drapes, houseplants, bookshelves, blinds, and stuffed animals collect dust. Remove these or wipe them down with a wet cloth every week.
- Mop floors and wipe down hard surface furniture with a moist cloth once a week.
- Use high-efficiency air filters in your furnace and air conditioner, and change the filter every month.
- Keep humidity in the home below 50%, and avoid using home humidifiers.
- If possible, replace wall-to-wall carpet in the bedroom with tile, hardwood or linoleum.
- Remove area rugs from your bedroom.
- If you cannot remove carpeting, vacuum at least once per week. Use a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or special double-thickness filter. Wash throw rugs often.
Allergic to Fido?
Pet dander is made of the dead skin cells that animals are constantly shedding. “Contrary to popular opinion, there are no ‘hypoallergenic’ breeds of dogs or cats,” notes Dr. Fadugba. “That is because most people are not allergic to an animal’s hair, but to an allergen found in the saliva, dander or urine of an animal with fur.”
Unfortunately, the most effective way to reduce your contact with pet dander is to remove the animal from your home. Though some people may try keeping a pet in certain areas of the house, this approach does not work well because the dander can spread through the air to other parts of the home or may “travel” on clothing. If you do remove your pet from the house, be sure to get rid of or thoroughly clean carpets, sofas, bedding, and curtains. And keep in mind that “cat allergens are very ‘sticky,’ and it can take 6 months for the level of cat allergen to drop,” cautioned Dr. Fadugba.
If you can’t bear to part with your fur baby, these tips may help improve your allergies:
- Keep any animals outside, in the garage, or in a kennel. At the very least, keep them out of the bedroom.
- Use an air filter with a HEPA filter, which lessens cat and dog allergens that are floating in the air–but keep in mind that air filters help only a little.
- Reduce the number of things in your home where allergens can build up, such as fabric-covered furniture and drapes.
- Every week, vacuum with a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter.
- Bathe your dog once a week.
Just be aware that “even if all the above measures are taken, if the cat or dog remains in the home, there will still be quite a lot of allergen in the house,” Dr. Fadugba points out.
Give Mold the Dry Treatment
Mold thrives in damp or humid areas of the home, especially in air conditioning vents, water traps, refrigerator drip trays, shower stalls, leaky sinks and damp basements. And if those areas are not cleaned on a regular basis, things can get super moldy. “Most of the mold spores enter the home from the outside air, but under certain circumstances, mold growth in the home can be significant,” according to Dr. Fadugba. She offers the following suggestions to stay dry and decrease allergies.
- Remove sources of standing water and persistent dampness–for example, remove house plants and fix leaky plumbing.
- Remove bathroom carpeting because it is exposed to steam and moisture.
- Turn on exhaust fans in the bathroom when bathing and showering
- Dehumidify damp areas like basements to levels below 50%. You can use an electric dehumidifier.
- Regularly disinfect indoor garbage pails.
- Do not store old books, newspapers, and clothing. Donate or throw them away instead.
- Water-damaged carpets, walls or ceiling boards should be thrown out because it is difficult to eliminate mold in this situation, even with thorough cleaning.
- Mold thrives on soap film that covers tiles, tubs, sinks and grout. Surfaces with visible mold growth should be cleaned at least every month with dilute (5%) bleach: Use 1 ounce of bleach diluted in one liter of water.
- If mold covers an area more than 10 square feet, consider hiring an indoor environmental professional.
Heading off indoor allergies requires a bit of effort, and none of these tips alone would be enough to control them. “Patients must take several measures in combination to reduce allergen,” says Dr. Fadugba.
If you take the recommended steps but still have symptoms, you may need to consider medication to treat your allergies. “Saline nasal rinses may also be a way to clean the nasal passages of allergens and can be helpful,” Dr. Fajt advises. “Other medications such as intranasal sprays that contain steroid or antihistamines are often used, and the saline nasal rinses can be used prior to using the steroid or antihistamine nasal sprays.”
What if those stubborn symptoms remain even after you’ve followed the suggestions plus tried the meds mentioned above?
“If symptoms persist, it is often helpful to be tested to determine the specific cause of your environmental allergies,” says Dr. Fajt. An allergist can perform this testing, which may involve either lab testing or skin testing, and the results can also alert you to which specific types of allergens you should avoid. Allergy immunotherapy — better known as allergy shots — can “also be helpful in certain patients when environmental control measures and other allergy medications do not completely control your symptoms.”
Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC is an Atlanta-based journalist, psychotherapist & health coach