We all have our own rituals to usher in the spring season. For some, it’s an opening-day baseball game. For others, it’s a top-to-bottom house cleaning. For me, it’s sneezing. Acacia trees are my mortal enemy, and for the weeks when they’re in bloom, it’s nonstop gesundheit.
I’m lucky because my allergies only last a short time. For many people, though, allergies are a year-round affair. And pollen isn’t the only culprit — pets, household products, dust, and mold can each cause their own share of misery. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to eliminate allergens from your home and keep the sneezing, wheezing, and other symptoms at bay.
Helpful tips for giving household allergens the heave-ho
Just about every surface of your home can be a landing pad for allergens — furniture, floors, even walls. The best way to eliminate most types of allergens is with regular, thorough dusting and vacuuming.
- When dusting, use a damp cloth to help pick up allergens so you’re not kicking them back into the air.
- Vacuum carpets and furniture at least once a week using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to trap small particles.
- Reduce clutter — stacked boxes, books, and piles of clothing make wonderful hiding places for allergens.
- Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner to keep humidity levels at around 40 percent. Dry air encourages allergens to go airborne. And too much humidity can stimulate mold growth, creating the perfect environment for dust mites to thrive.
- Buy houseplants that act as natural air cleaners, such as lady palm, bamboo palm, dracaena, and Chinese evergreen.
Pollen is born to travel — many plants reproduce by sending pollen grains into the air, to be transported by wind, insects, and even people. On hot, windy days during pollen season, one cubic foot of air can contain more than 50 airborne pollen grains!
So when the pollen count is high, the key is to keep those pollen grains outside, where they belong.
- Keep doors and windows shut, especially between the hours of 5 and 10 a.m., when plants produce most of their pollen.
- Leave shoes outside so you don’t track pollen into the house.
- Change your clothes when you come in from the outdoors.
- Don’t air-dry your laundry outside — it may collect pollen or mold.
If you’re allergic to dust, you’re most likely reacting to the presence of dust mites — just like the 20 million other Americans who are also sensitive to these microscopic critters. Dust mites feed on flakes of skin (ew!) shed by people and pets, and they live in mattresses, upholstery, carpets, and other places that collect dust.
Dusting and vacuuming will help, but even if your home looks clean, dust mites might still be present in your bedding. Here are some other solutions:
- Wash bedding frequently (at least once a week) in water 130° F or hotter to kill dust mites. If your bedding isn’t washable, try putting it in the freezer overnight.
- Encase your pillows and mattresses in allergen-proof covers.
- If you’re extremely sensitive, wear a face mask when dusting or vacuuming, and leave the room for 30 minutes or so afterward to allow airborne particles to settle.
Unfortunately for many animal lovers, the proteins in dog or cat saliva and dander (dead skin flakes) can cause allergic reactions in humans. Dander is a large component of dust, so regular dusting and vacuuming helps here too. Here’s what else you can do:
- Train your pet (ok, your dog) to stay off the furniture. (Can cats really be trained?)
- Give your pet (ok, your dog) a bath once a week or more to wash away dander.
- Brush your cat frequently and use grooming wipes to rid its coat of dander and other allergens.
- Designate your bedroom as a pet-free zone to help keep dander out of your bedding.
Many common household items, such as cleaning products, cosmetics, upholstery fabrics, and dry-cleaned clothing contain chemicals known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Common VOCs include acetone, benzene, and formaldehyde, to name a few. When released into the air, these chemicals can trigger allergy symptoms or make them worse. Here’s how to keep them out of the air in your home:
- Use environmentally friendly cleaning products that don’t contain VOCs (or make your own cleaners using natural ingredients like baking soda or vinegar)
- Seek out furniture that isn’t treated with fire-retardant chemicals
- Find a dry cleaner that uses a nontoxic alternative to perchloroethylene (a very common but hazardous dry-cleaning chemical)
- Buy houseplants that are known to remove VOCs from the air:
- Spider plants, aloe, and weeping fig* (to remove benzene and formaldehyde)
- Snake plants, azaleas, golden pothos, and philodendron (to remove formaldehyde)
- Chrysanthemums and gerbera daisies (to remove benzene)
*Note: weeping figs are not a good choice for people with latex allergies.
Mold and mildew
Mold and mildew are forms of fungi, which reproduce using spores. Breathing in these spores can cause allergy symptoms like sneezing or nasal congestion and can also bring on an asthma attack. Mold thrives in damp, humid places (especially bathrooms and cellars). Here’s how to limit your exposure:
- Keep humidity below mold-friendly levels by using a dehumidifier (inexpensive meters for monitoring humidity levels are available at hardware stores).
- Run an exhaust fan or crack a window after a shower or bath to remove moisture from the air.
- Scrub mold from hard surfaces like tile or glass using a mild solution of bleach and water.
- In your basement, remove stacks of old papers and store clothes and bedding in airtight, waterproof containers.
- Fix leaky pipes and clean up spills promptly to prevent mold from growing in wet spots on your carpet.