Although there are a number of treatments that offer the potential to reduce the number and severity of allergic reactions, avoiding allergens and using certain fast acting remedies to control symptoms will offer the most relief in the short-term. Here we look at reducing allergens in the home.
Although it is wise to reduce all potential allergens as much as possible as environmental illness sufferers are often what have become known as 'universal reactors', meaning they react to multiple allergens, it is often useful to know specifically which substances are triggering allergic symptoms. Many diagnostic labs offer inhalant IgE panels which screen for a wide range of common allergens.
For more information see our useful lab tests page.
General Measures Throughout the Home
Many areas of the average house are a welcoming home for potential triggers of allergic symptoms but a few simple changes can offer substantial allergy relief. The most common allergens in the home are dust mites, molds and allergens from pets. We'll look at the most problematic rooms in detail later but first there are a number of measures you can take throughout the house that will reduce the amount of allergens present and provide a great deal of allergy relief. These include:
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- Avoid Carpeting - Carpets easily collect dust and are therefore a breeding ground for dust mites. Carpets also tend to collect animal hair and dander as well potentially causing further problems for the allergic individual. In place of carpets use hard flooring such as naturally treated wood, stone, or tile as much as possible.
- Minimize Soft Furnishings - Like carpets soft furnishings are a dust trap so are best kept to a minimum. This means avoiding having large amounts of cushions on sofa's and using wood/metal blinds instead of curtains.
- Improve Ventilation - Dust mites and moulds thrive in warm, damp environments so improving ventilation in the home will help to reduce their growth. This could be as simple as opening windows to allow the exchange of air or as complicated as having a ventilation system with HEPA filters* fitted to the house. It obviously depends on the severity of the allergies as to what is required.
- Reduce Damp - Make sure a quality damp-proof course is fitted to your home. Poor quality chemical damp-proof courses should be avoided, especially in the chemically sensitive, as if impure organic solvents have been used they may offgass for years. An electrostatic damp-proof course is an alternative to chemicals if a physical barrier is not an option.
- Use a Dehumidifier - An effective way to reduce moisture in the air to discourage dust mite and mould growth is to use a dehumidifier. They are relatively inexpensive, available from all good household goods stores and are an especially good idea if you need to keep windows shut due to pollen allergies.
- Keep Central Heating Low - In colder climates it is a good idea to keep radiators as low as possible to avoid encouraging growth of dust mites etc.
- Use a HEPA Vacuum Cleaner - Vacuum cleaners fitted with HEPA filters* are a very effective means of reducing allergens. Vacuuming regularly with one of these is a very beneficial part of any allergen control strategy. Many manufacturers are now making models with HEPA filters, look out for ones recommended by allergy charities and organizations.
- Use HEPA Air Filters - Air filters using HEPA technology effectively reduce allergens in the air but have potential drawbacks in that they can be noisy and expensive on electricity. Nevertheless if you can put up with these factors an air filter should noticeably improve allergic symptoms.
- Use Natural Dust Mite Killers - A number of companies manufacture products that kill dust mites without using chemicals. These are mainly available through allergy related stores.
- Use Pet Allergen Reduction Products - There are products now becoming available that aim to remove allergens from pets coats. These mostly take the form of shampoos that are rubbed into the fur and rinsed off, taking allergens with them.
*HEPA filters are explained further down the page
The bedroom is a particularly welcoming home for dust mites because sweating in bed produces the ideal warm and damp environment in which they thrive. Skin flakes also provide a plentiful source of food for dust mites. Not a nice thought but this is the truth of it! The fact that your nose is always close to this environment through the many hours you're asleep obviously increases exposure to these allergens as well. There a quite a number of simple measures you can take to reduce you exposure to dust mites in the bedroom, these include:
- Changing bedding regularly.
- Use only enough bedding to keep you comfortably warm thus minimizing sweating.
- Fold bedding back during the day to allow air to circulate over the sheets.
- Wash bedding at the highest temperature possible to kill dust mites.
- Keep furniture to a minimum, soft furnishings, book cases and curtains are common dust traps.
All these measures are aimed at reducing moisture and keeping the temperature down to a minimum. Another highly effective method for reducing exposure to dust mites whilst in bed is to purchase allergen barrier covers for your mattress and bedding. These covers generally have a construction that effectively traps dust mite allergen although some work by trapping allergens electrostatically, effectively sticking them to the cover with static electricity. Barrier covers are widely available from stores selling allergy products.
Another potential source of allergens in the bedroom are pets. Animal dander is a common source of allergic symptoms and can persist for up to 6 months after the animal has been removed from the house. If you are allergic to a pet but feel the benefits are worth suffering the allergic symptoms for then it is worth keeping the pet to one or a few rooms in the house. The bedroom should definitely be a pet free zone.
In the bathroom the predominant problem is with moulds due to the warm and damp environment. There is little problem with dust mites in bathrooms as the amount of furniture and soft furnishings is low. There may be a problem however if a carpet is fitted so it is advisable to fit solid flooring, preferably tiles. It is very important to prevent or remove any amount of mould as mould growth the size of a pinhead can release millions of spores.
To reduce the potential for mould growth within the bathroom the following measures may be useful:
- Fit an extractor fan and always use while bathing/showering and for a reasonable period afterwards until the steam is cleared.
- Open windows as much as possible to allow circulation of air.
- Fit sealed unit double-glazed windows to avoid condensation.
- Use a dehumidifier and add a little borax to the reservoir to discourage mould growth.
These measures should help to prevent the growth of moulds but if growth is already present you will need to deal with it directly. This can be achieved by treating it with any of the chemical mould killers or bleaches commonly available at supermarkets if they are tolerated. For the chemically sensitive borax is a safe alternative and equally as effective if harder to come by.
Kitchen and Utility/Laundry Rooms
As with bathrooms the primary concern in the kitchen is with moulds. Like bathrooms, kitchens are warm and damp so ventilation is a priority. Extractor fans should be fitted, preferably an extractor hood above stoves and maybe a separate fan close to the sink. Windows should also be opened whilst cooking. Utility/Laundry rooms should also have extractor fans and ample ventilation, especially if tumble dryers are present as these produce a lot of heat as well as damp.
In addition to the above, the recommendations for bathrooms regarding both prevention and treatment of mould growth apply to kitchens and utility/laundry rooms as well.
What are HEPA Filters?
The most effective type of filter for reducing allergens, and indeed chemicals, viruses and bacteria as well, is known as a HEPA filter. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air. These systems were originally developed by the US military during WWII and have been used extensively by the military and medical profession ever since. They are so effective that they are used to keep operating theatres free of airborne particles.
HEPA filters are constructed from a special glass fibre sheet pleated in a “V” pattern like a folded paper fan with corrugated aluminium separators between the folds. This is attached to a sturdy base, forming the core of the filter.
HEPA filters can filter out a very high percentage of of all particulates in the air, typically around 99.7%. They effectively capture all large particles and many of the small ones. In fact, a HEPA filter is designed to capture particles in the air down to 0.3 microns in diameter.
As mentioned earlier, HEPA filters can be noisy when used in air filters due to the fan and can be expensive due to electricity costs. Replacement filters for air filters and vacuum cleaners can also be expensive as HEPA filters are not reusable. Despite this they are easily the most effective filters available and their use can improve allergic symptoms dramatically.
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