While seasonal allergies may wreak havoc in spring and fall, indoor allergies are a year-round struggle for millions of Americans. As temperatures fall and we begin to spend more time indoors, what can you do to keep indoor allergies under control?
We talked to UNC Health allergist Kathleen Wang, MD, about common indoor allergies and what to do about them.
“There are multiple allergens that lurk within the home, and the most common ones are dust mites, pet dander, usually from cats and dogs, mold and cockroaches,” Dr. Wang says.
Regardless of how clean your home is, everyone has these allergens lurking around.
“There’s this myth that if my house is really clean then I don’t have a lot of allergens, and that’s actually not true. Allergens will hide in every nook and cranny of every home that has people living in it,” Dr. Wang says. “But there are steps you can take depending on what type of allergen you’re trying to reduce.”
Here are tips for reducing your exposure to common indoor allergens.
1. Reduce moisture in the air to combat dust mites and mold.
Dust mites live on soft things such as couches, curtains, pillows and carpets, and they thrive on moisture.
“Dust mites are everywhere if you have humans or pets living in your home and moisture in the air,” Dr. Wang says. “They’re all around us.”
Although you cannot completely get rid of dust mites, there are a combination of things you can do to minimize them. The best way to keep dust mites at bay is to reduce moisture in your home.
Remove humidifiers and use air conditioning in the summer to lower the humidity in your home. Put pillows and mattress pads in dust mite-proof cases and “make sure you wash your linens in hot water and dry them in a hot dryer at least once a week,” Dr. Wang says.
For the little ones, their beloved stuffed animals are a haven for dust mites.
“Try to keep stuffed animals out of the bed, but as a lot of kids love to snuggle with their stuffed animals while going to sleep, try to wash the stuffed animals with your linens every week,” Dr. Wang says.
If your child’s stuffies aren’t machine-washable, you can put them in a plastic bag in the freezer for 24 to 48 hours once a week to kill dust mites.
2. Don’t let pets into your bedroom.
More than 50 percent of people in the United States have a cat or a dog, but for those who are allergic to pet dander, the best kind of pet—if you don’t already have one—is a pet that does not have fur, such as fish or a turtle.
If you already have a furry pet, there are things you can do to try to reduce your exposure to pet dander. Dr. Wang suggests combining all these strategies together for the most relief.
First, try to keep your pet out of your bedroom, because that’s a place you’re spending hours every night. Provide a comfortable place for your dog or cat to sleep in another part of your home. If you must have a pet in your bedroom, keep your furry friend off the bed.
Dander is present on your pet’s skin, saliva and urine, so washing your pets once a week is proven to be helpful, too. (Of course, many pets won’t tolerate such frequent bathing, especially cats.)
Finally, running a HEPA filter in a room where a pet spends a lot of time can be helpful. However, there are some downsides to using a HEPA filter, starting with the fact that they can be expensive.
“Depending on the HEPA filter, it has a very specific square footage it can cover, so you can’t expect one HEPA filter to clean the entire house. The other thing is that it really has to be run continuously, so that can definitely increase your electricity bill,” Dr. Wang says.
3. Limit access to water and food to keep cockroaches at bay.
Allergies to cockroaches are less common, but still problematic for many. And you don’t need to see cockroaches in your home to have them living there.
“Cockroaches really like food and water, so to reduce them coming into your home, you have to make sure that you seal any cracks in your walls or other ways they can enter your home and then limit the water and food that cockroaches can access,” Dr. Wang says.
Locate and fix any dripping faucets or leaks in pipes. Seal food in containers and wipe up spills promptly.
“Counters and stoves are areas where you can have little food crumbs that may be hidden that cockroaches like,” Dr. Wang says. “Leaving dishes in the sink for a long time is a way for cockroaches to access a food source. And make sure you’re emptying out the trash regularly. If you have a trash can with a lid, that can be helpful as well.”
4. Call mold removal experts to remove mold.
Like dust mites, minimizing moisture in the air also helps if you are allergic to mold.
“Indoor mold hangs out in moist areas such as showers, damp basements and in the soil of plants,” Dr. Wang says.
If you see visible molds, you can remove them with a bleach solution. Mix one cup of bleach in a gallon of water, apply to the surface and don’t rinse.
“But mold is one of those things that if you have a lot of it, it’s probably best to leave it to the professionals,” Dr. Wang says. Mold removal services can remove mold and advise you on preventing future mold growth.
If indoor allergies are still making you miserable, you can try taking over-the-counter allergy medications such as Zyrtec, Claritin, Allegra or their generic equivalents. If you feel drainage from your nose down the back of your throat (postnasal drip), use Flonase, an over-the-counter nasal spray. Eyedrops can help for itchy eyes. If your symptoms persist, talk to your doctor or see an allergist.
“If you’re not finding relief, it’s time to see an allergist,” Dr. Wang says.
An allergist will start with more conservative measures, such as over-the-counter antihistamine medications, but can offer immunotherapy in the form of allergy shots if needed.
“If you’re still not feeling better, or you are wanting more long-term relief, your allergist may recommend allergy shots, which are really amazing for a subset of people who may not be getting a lot of relief from their current regimen,” Dr. Wang says.
If you experience indoor allergies, talk to your doctor about the best treatment for you. Need a doctor? Find one near you.