How to Allergy-Proof Your Home All Year Long
Should I test my home’s air quality?
Sure, but be clear on what you’re testing. You may see ads for air-quality inspections, but many of those check for contaminants like CO2 and asbestos rather than allergens like dust mites or pet dander. And inspections can be expensive. Instead, invest in hypoallergenic mattress and pillow covers—the fabric is tightly woven, so it’s hard for microscopic dust mites to get through. Another tip: Buy a cool-mist humidifier and a humidity monitor to make sure the level stays below 50 percent. “Mites and mold love a damp environment,” says Neeta Ogden, M.D., an allergist in Edison, New Jersey, and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
What about an air purifier?
If your home is prone to mold or if you have a furry pet (think dog, cat, gerbil, guinea pig), an air purifier can help. But it won’t get rid of pollen or dust mites. Those particles are too small for the machine to remove, says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network, who practices in New York City.. Purifiers come in a range of prices, but it’s most important that yours has a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter (this will be marked on the box), which traps 99.9 percent of mold and pet-dander particles.
Are carpets bad for allergies?
Unfortunately, yes. “Carpets are a reservoir for dust mites and animal dander,” says Jacqueline S. Eghrari- Sabet, M.D., an allergist-immunologist in Washington, D.C. If you can, replace them with wood, tile, or washable rugs. If you can’t, vacuum at least once or twice a week. (And like the air purifier, your vacuum should have a HEPA filter.)
Will running the central air help?
Only if you clean the vents, which you should do with every change of season. “Use a service if exposure to allergens could trigger allergy symptoms and to ensure it’s done thoroughly,” says Dr. Parikh. Keep the AC on at night and in the morning, when pollen levels are high, then open windows in the afternoon and the evening, when levels drop.
Wait, I should track pollen levels?
That’s a big yes. “You likely pay attention to the UV index on hot days or the wind-chill factor on cold days, and it’s just as easy—and important—to tune in to the pollen count,” says Dr. Eghrari-Sabet. Tree pollen comes at the beginning of spring, grasses (like ragweed) at the end of spring or early summer, and weeds at the end of summer.
If you or your kids consistently suffer, use the pollen count to track when in the season you’re most congested, which can help your allergist pinpoint a diagnosis and treatment plan. It’ll also help you know when to go outside. It’s best to stick to afternoon and evening, but stay inside on very high pollen days, says Dr. Ogden. When levels settle, you should be fine; just take medication beforehand.
But our family loves to garden!
Good news: Your geraniums are not the culprits. Flowers are pollinated by bees, while ragweed and tree pollen—the big offenders—spread via wind. If you’re planting trees in your yard, ask your nursery about getting females, which make berries, rather than males, which produce pollen. Of course, pollen can travel for miles in the air, so no matter how conscious you are, that birch next door (or one town over) could still mess with your nose.
As for houseplants, you’re safe with most varieties. But if the soil gets moldy, throw it out. Even a pretty potted ivy can wreak havoc on your allergies if it sprouts anything other than new leaves.
Are daily OTC meds necessary?
They can be very helpful for treating symptoms, and some can be taken by kids as young as 2. An intranasal corticosteroid, like Flonase or Nasacort, can help with nasal congestion, sneezing, runny nose, and itchy and watery eyes and is safe for kids and adults. While many antihistamines are available, their effectiveness depends on how well you match the product to the specific symptoms. “See an allergist early on to find the best medications for you,” says Dr. Ogden. “Or if it’s for your child, have his pediatrician suggest one.” Ideally, you or your kid can begin taking meds one or two weeks prior to pollen season to help lessen your reaction.
What else can I do to feel better?
Use saline spray to flush out allergens. “It’s like a shower for your nose,” says Dr. Ogden. If you’re experiencing symptoms year after year, your allergist may suggest immunotherapy, which is now available via shots or tablets and contains a very small amount of the allergen. “This gradually builds up your tolerance so your symptoms decrease, whereas daily medications only manage your current symptoms,” says Dr. Eghrari-Sabet. Depending on the specific allergy, you may receive the shots or tablets year-round (such as for dust) or start taking them just before the season, then stop at season’s end (like for grass and ragweed). Children as young as 5 can receive shots or tablets for seasonal allergies, but tablets for dust mites are still awaiting FDA approval for kids.
During high allergy season, have your family remove their shoes and socks and change their clothes as soon as they come inside to avoid tracking pollen around. Use baby soap and a washcloth to wipe around your child’s eyes whenever she comes in from outside as well. Before bed, shower to rinse any pollen from your skin.
Do hypoallergenic dogs exist?
Sadly, no. Portuguese water dogs and poodles are the most hypoallergenic breeds, but there’s no guarantee you won’t react to the pup you bring home. Do your research to make sure the dog you’re getting is purebred—even 1 percent of Lab, a very allergenic dog, could make a difference, says Dr. Ogden.
Beyond a dog’s or cat’s dander (FYI, a cat’s can stay in a home for six months after it leaves), a pet’s saliva and urine also contain the protein that causes a reaction, so limit areas where it can roam. Pets also drag pollen into your house. Wipe them down when they come in, and bathe them more often in high-pollen times. But if you or your kid is allergic to furry animals, you might be better off just getting a fish. Or perhaps a pet rock? Very low maintenance!