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House Beautiful, House Breatheable

Conquering the five most common allergens in your home

Even if your house is clean enough to be worthy of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, it may still be a warm, cozy sanctuary for allergens.

The bad news is that most of the homes in America are.

“Areas of upper elevation and the desert southwest are the only places you don’t see dust mites,” says Tom Kallstrom, Director of Respiratory Care and Biometrics at Fairview Hospital, Cleveland, Ohio.

The good news is that with a few changes

to your house cleaning habits, you can significantly reduce your exposure to the floating particles in the air that make you cough, sneeze and wheeze.

10 Steps to an allergy-free home
1. Know your allergy triggers. Knowing what causes your symptoms will allow you to prioritize your house cleaning habits.
2. Remove carpet. Carpet traps animal dander, which, in addition to being a common indoor allergen, is a major food source for dust mites.
3. Frequent dusting and vacuuming. If you can’t remove carpet, then vacuum frequently with a high containment vacuum cleaner. If you have asthma, have someone else vacuum.
4. Pay attention to the weather report. If pollen and mold counts are high, or if it’s windy, stay indoors as much as possible, keep your windows closed, run the air conditioner or dehumidifier, and don’t hang your clothes outside to dry.
5. Stop smoking and don’t expose children to smoke.
6. Get rid of pets, keep them outdoors or at least keep them out of the bedroom.
7. Cover your furniture, especially beds and pillows.
8. Eliminate standing water by cleaning up spills immediately and by repairing leaky faucets.
9. Run your air conditioner or dehumidifier on warm days.
10. Remove the food source for roaches by keeping your kitchen counter and floors clean and free of crumbs, cleaning your microwave frequently and storing food properly.

According to Kallstrom, who also trains respiratory therapists to inform their patients on controlling indoor and environmental asthma triggers, the first and most important part of controlling allergens in your home is to know what your allergies are.

“If you haven’t been diagnosed by an allergist, at least know what triggers your symptoms,” Kallstrom says.

The five most common indoor allergens are dust mites, mold, animal dander, cigarette smoke and cockroaches. While you can’t rid your home entirely of these allergens, you can take simple steps to reduce your exposure.

Since most of us spend a majority of our time in the bedroom, Kallstrom says it’s

important to make your bedroom an allergy-free sanctuary. That means, whenever possible, removing bedroom carpet and keeping your hardwood floors dust free as much as possible. If that’s not feasible (if you live in an apartment, for instance), then frequent dusting and vacuuming are in order. Check the Consumer Reports web site at to find ratings for the best vacuum cleaners for allergy sufferers.

Asthmatics and severe dust mite allergy sufferers, however, should not vacuum carpet themselves, since vacuuming can stir up dust. So, if you’re one of these folks, have someone else do your vacuuming. And if you’re allergic to animal dander, be sure to keep pets out of your bedroom at all times.

To control your specific allergy triggers, follow these tips:

Don’t let the dust mites bite.

Actually, dust mites don’t bite, and dust mites themselves are innocuous. In fact, they feed on human and animal dander. And it isn’t the dust mite that you’re allergic to. It’s the dust mite’s … um … by-product.

“What happens is that the (dust mites’) excrement becomes airborne,” Kallstrom says, “and that’s what triggers allergy symptoms.”

The easiest way to control dust mite excrement is, of course, to control the dust mite population in your home. The best way to do that is to reduce the relative humidity.

The best thing to do to control humidity is close the windows and turn on your air conditioner when the weather is warm. If you don’t have air conditioning or you don’t want to run up your utility bill, invest in a dehumidifier, which is especially useful in the basement of your home.

“A dust mite requires 50 percent relative humidity to survive,” Kallstrom says.

So, the most important factor is to maintain a relative humidity in your home of 50 percent.

The next step is to wash your sheets at least once a week in very hot water.

“Washing bed linens in water that’s at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit will kill dust mites,” says Kallstrom.

Next, Kallstrom recommends creating barriers between you and dust. Simply covering your sofa with a clean blanket while you watch TV or nap can be enough to curb allergy symptoms. If that isn’t enough, Kallstrom says plastic or semi-permeable covers for your sofa, mattress, and especially pillows may be necessary.

Stuffed animals can collect a surprising amount of dust as well, so Kallstrom suggests covering them when your child isn’t playing with them.

“Another thing you can do with stuffed animals,” says Kallstrom, “is stick them in the freezer for a couple of hours to kill the dust mites.”

Finally, Kallstrom advises, don’t forget to keep plants and curtains clean and free of dust. To clean your houseplants, gather them up, put them the bathtub and give them a cold shower. Blinds are the best window coverings for reducing allergens, but if you must have curtains, be sure to wash them frequently.

To conquer mold, don’t stand for standing water.

If mold is what’s causing your sneezing and wheezing, then once again, reducing humidity is the key. So again, in warm weather, be sure to run your air conditioner or use a dehumidifier. Changing the filter on your air conditioner and furnace as often as indicated by the manufacturer may also reduce the amount of mold spores floating around your house.

But the most important way to control mold is to get rid of standing water in your home.

That means wiping up spills, including and especially water, as soon as possible and cleaning the area with disinfectant. “There are commercial products to use in the home to help stem mold growth,” Kallstrom says. You may want to avoid using bleach as it is a respiratory irritant.

Reducing mold exposure also means repairing any leaking faucets and regularly emptying the drip pans in your refrigerator.

You can also minimize ingestion of mold spores simply by paying attention to the weather. Most TV stations’ meteorologists report the pollen, air pollution and mold levels during their weather reports, so on high allergen days, try to stay indoors as much as possible, and never, ever hang your clothes outside to dry on these days or on windy days. These are also the times when you want to keep your windows closed and run your air conditioner, Kallstrom says. If you must be outside, the earlier, the better, since allergen counts tend to increase as the day progresses.

“Early morning is the best time of day for an allergic person to be outside,” Kallstrom says.

Cute and furry isn’t always your friend.

Another common indoor allergen is airborne animal dander produced by dogs, cats and birds. Sadly, the easiest way to control this can also be the most emotionally difficult.

“The best thing you can do,” Kallstrom says regrettably, “is to get rid of the animal.”

If you just can’t bear to part with your furry or feathery friend, then it’s essential to separate pets as much as possible from the allergy or asthma sufferer. Kallstrom says that means keeping them outdoors if possible, or at least confining them to certain areas of the house.

“Do not allow the pet in the bedroom,” Kallstrom warns. “Let that be a sanctuary for the allergy sufferer.”

Keeping your pets’ clean can also help. While it may sound odd, and potentially dangerous if your cat has claws, Kallstrom says that studies have shown washing a cat once a week can remove enough dander to provide relief to allergy and asthma sufferers.

A smoke-free house is a good home and health investment.

Some cities have successfully enacted restaurant smoking bans; so if you’re allergic to tobacco smoke and you live in one of these cities, consider yourself lucky. If you have a child with allergies or asthma, you must be vigilant about keeping them away from smoke. Especially if you smoke.

“Not in the house,” Kallstrom stresses to smokers with allergic or asthmatic children, “and not near the child.”

In discussing the topic of allergies to cigarette smoke, Kallstrom points out an unexpected phenomenon.

“Generally speaking, about 25 percent of adults in America smoke,” says Kallstrom. “You wouldn’t think it would be this way, but the same percentage of people with asthma smoke and only about ten percent realize the connection.”

“Clearly there’s a denial factor,” he adds. “Certainly, if you have asthma,” Kallstrom stresses, “you need to stop smoking.”

Respiratory disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, Kallstrom says. So even if you don’t have asthma, you need to stop smoking. Especially if you’re the parent of an allergic or asthmatic child.

Talk to your doctor or your area hospital’s respiratory therapy department when you’re ready to stop smoking.

“It’s very possible that they have a smoking cessation program,” Kallstrom says.

Don’t feed the roaches.

Another of the most common indoor allergens, and a major asthma trigger, is cockroaches.

“When a child less than one year old is exposed, it’s likely they’ll be sensitive for the rest of their life,” Kallstrom says.

It’s also one of the hardest allergens to get rid of, and while they’re a worse problem in warmer climates, no area is immune. If you are sensitive to roaches, the best thing you can do to reduce your allergy symptoms is keep your house clean.

“The prevalence of roaches in large cities is one of the reasons that asthma is considered to be an ‘urban disease,’” says Kallstrom.

Contact a pest control company to find out if they have a pesticide or pest control system that won’t exacerbate your allergies.

If you are sensitive to pesticides or if money is an issue, Kallstrom says that boric acid, which is extremely toxic to insects, but harmless to humans and available inexpensively at most drugstores or grocery stores, kills roaches effectively. Try putting boric acid along the walls, crevices and any places in your home that you see roaches. Combining this technique with poisoned roach bait will kill the roaches that are exposed to these agents and reduce your symptoms.

Since allergens often find their way into the ductwork of your home, using good air conditioning and furnace filters and changing them frequently will reduce the chances of ingesting them. Kallstrom says that while there’s often no significant difference in your allergy symptoms when you have your ducts professionally cleaned, it may not be a bad idea.

“It may help, it can’t hurt,” says Kallstrom, “but there’s no significant difference.”

And there’s no telling (or even wanting to know) what they leave behind, so Kallstrom says it’s a good idea to keep your furniture covered.

But the best way to control roaches is to make your home unattractive to them. Keep your house clean, especially the kitchen. Keeping crumbs off the counter, keeping your microwave clean and not leaving food out or uncovered will keep roaches off your eating surfaces and will encourage them to find another food source (ideally outside your home). Also, remember to store dry foods, especially things like sugar, flour and honey, in airtight containers.

“Keeping a clean house is imperative,” says Kallstrom.

So the best way to keep your house breathable, and beautiful, is to keep it clean. Changing your habits is the most important part of an allergy-free home.

Posted: May 2004
Reviewed: May 26, 2005

© 2018 American Association for Respiratory Care