4 Common Causes of Indoor Allergies—And How to Get Rid of Them

Are your kids allergic to dust mites or something else? Find out what indoor allergens might be causing sniffles and sneezing in your home.

Baby with Allergies

The most common causes of indoor allergies are dust, mold, and pet dander, says Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network. But did you know that cockroaches can also trigger itchy eyes, a runny nose, and sneezing? Learn about the different types of household allergies and how to safely combat the symptoms.

What Causes Indoor Allergies?

When a sensitive individual comes in contact with an allergen, the body treats it like a foreign substance, causing your immune system to overreact. If you’re sniffling and sneezing indoors (and you don’t have a cold), one of these four allergens might be the culprit.

Dust: House dust contains elements from indoors and outdoors, including dander, hair, plant particles, dust mites, fabric, and insect debris. Some of these substances might trigger a reaction—especially dust mites, which are microscopic arachnids often found in upholstery, carpeting, and bedding. Dust mites aren’t harmful (a majority of American homes have them) but they’re difficult to get rid of. Dust allergies usually hit the hardest in hot, humid weather.

Mold: Inside a home, mold and mildew can form in damp areas like bathrooms and basements. Airborne mold spores cause allergies in prone individuals.

Pets: Pet dander—or skin sheddings from dogs, cats, and rodents—is another common allergy trigger. Urine and saliva can also spur symptoms.

Cockroaches: Dr. Parikh says that between 78% and 98% of homes in urban areas have cockroaches, and up to 60% of people with asthma who live in cities are allergic to cockroaches. The main culprit is the dead cockroach bodies and dried waste, which can get in the air when disturbed.

Symptoms of Indoor Allergies

According to Dr. Parikh, common indoor allergy symptoms include:

  • Itchy watery, eyes
  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rashes

Note that you should visit a doctor immediately if you experience severe shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

How to Diagnose Indoor Allergies

If you think you’re suffering from indoor allergies, “you should have allergy testing done by a board-certified allergist,” says Dr. Parikh. There are three common types of skin diagnosis tests: skin prick test, intradermal test, and patch test. In rare occasions, the allergist may conduct a blood test—mainly if you’re extra-sensitive to the allergen.

Skin Prick Test: The nurse or doctor will place the potential allergen on the forearm or upper back, then prick the skin to push it inside. If you’re allergic, you’ll develop red itchy bumps (wheals) within 20 minutes. Skin pricking allows you to test many allergens at once, using a different injection site for each substance.

Intradermal Test (Skin Injection): The allergist injects a small amount of the substance directly into the skin, then examines for a reaction.

Patch Test: The allergen is attached to the skin for 48 hours using tape. Patch tests usually detect contact dermatitis.

Treating Indoor Allergies

For short-term relief, you can reduce allergy symptoms with over-the-counter products. “You’ll need things like eye drops, nasal sprays, allergy medications (usually antihistamines like Benadryl), or asthma inhalers,” says Dr. Parikh. “Certain measures, such as dust mite covers for dust mites and air purifiers for mold and pet dander, can also help. The bedroom is the most important room to keep allergen-free as we spend the most amount of time there.”

As a long-term solution, the most effective treatment option is removing the source of allergies from your home.

  • Start by reducing the presence of dust mites. Vacuuming won’t do much, since the mites can burrow deep in the carpeting. Instead, swap long-haired rugs for hard-surface floors, and rely on hypoallergenic covers for your bedding. Controlling humidity during the summer can also manage these pests.
  • Hire a professional to remove mold from your house—or research how to safely do it yourself. Prevent mold from reappearing by setting up dehumidifiers, fixing leaks, and showering with the vent fan on.
  • If Fido or Fluffy makes you sniffle, recruit another member to groom and feed the pet, and keep it out of your bedroom. Those with severe allergies may need to find a new loving home for the animal, which should resolve symptoms within six months.
  • Do you have a cockroach infestation? Get rid of the pests with poison or traps, and don’t let food or garbage sit uncovered inside the house. You might also need to hire an exterminator.

If allergies are severe, your doctor may treat them with allergen immunotherapy (desensitization), which is also known as allergy shots, says Dr. Parikh At regular intervals, a small amount of the allergen is injected into the skin to jumpstart your immune system. The dosage increases over time, allowing your body to build immunity to the allergen—much like a vaccine. Shots are given 1-3 times per week during the first few months, then about once per month to maintain progress. You’ll likely need regular allergy shots for three-five years.

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