If you've been living with allergies, you probably know the obvious stuff by
now -- don't take in stray cats, don't hang around in dusty attics, don't
inhale deeply in smoking lounges. But that might not be enough. There could be
hidden allergy triggers and irritants all around you that you don't know
"Hidden allergens and irritants are a huge problem for people with
allergies," says Hugh H. Windom, MD, an associate clinical professor of
immunology at the University of South Florida. "The environments we live
and work in expose us to all sorts of things."
And these hidden allergy triggers aren't the only issue. Just as problematic
are the unsuspected ways that you might be getting exposed -- even to allergens
you think you're avoiding.
Putzing in the garden is nothing less than therapy. It's even good exercise,
if you exert enough effort. But the sneezing and stuffy-headed feeling that
lingers afterwards -- that's the downside of gardening with allergies.
To a person with allergies, the world can seem like a minefield. To help
guide you through it, here's a rundown of some allergens and irritants you
might be missing, along with advice from the experts on avoiding them.
Hidden Allergy Triggers and Irritants
Indoor pollution. Every ragweed pollen season, you might dutifully
shut the windows and barricade yourself in your home. But while you're focused
on the allergens outdoors, you could be missing the equally troublesome
irritants inside. Studies have shown that indoor air pollution is often at
least twice as high as what you get outdoors -- and often much higher.
"While there might be pollution outside, at least you have infinite
ventilation," says Jay M. Portnoy, MD, president of the American College of
Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI.) "But inside, irritants can become
very concentrated." So when you're looking for hidden allergy triggers,
start inside. After all, that's where we spend 90% of our lives.
Vacuum cleaners. Yes, vacuuming can actually be bad for allergies. A
normal vacuum is fine for sucking up the obvious stuff, like dust, dirt, and
pet hair. But the allergens themselves are so tiny that they can go right
through the filter, rocketing out of the vacuum's exhaust. "Vacuuming with
a low-efficiency vacuum is probably making things worse," says Portnoy.
"You're turning your vacuum into an allergen dispersal device."
What should you do? Much as we might all like to have a doctor-approved excuse
for giving up on housework, that's not an option. People with allergies need to
vacuum regularly, since a buildup of dust -- full of allergens like pollens,
dust mites, and insect remains -- is the last thing you need.
So instead, shell out for a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate
air) filter, which will be fine enough to catch most allergy-irritating
particles. Another option is a central vacuum -- if your house has one
installed -- since at least then the allergens aren't being dispersed in your
living space, says Portnoy. Then, vacuum regularly -- especially if you have
pets, or if you've had the windows open during pollen season.
Cleaning products. Not only is vacuuming a problem, but many
cleaning agents can be tough on people with allergies. While not proper
allergens, cleaning agents can irritate the airways and trigger quite serious
The key is not to let the odors become too concentrated. "When you're
cleaning in an enclosed space, you must always have good ventilation," says
Pramod S. Kelkar, MD, chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and
Immunology's Cough Taskforce. "Always open the window or run an exhaust
Pets -- but not for the reasons you think. It's not just the animal
dander. Even if you're not at all allergic to dander, pets are prime culprits
for bringing hidden allergy triggers into the house.
"Outdoor pets go outside and roll around in the grass, which could be
covered in pollen or mold," says Portnoy. Then they come in and sit on the
couch, and on your bed, and on you. The only solution is to either keep your
pets indoors or bathe them regularly.
Houseguests. Just like your pets, visitors can serve as a delivery
system for hidden allergy triggers. They might bring in the allergens -- like
cat dander -- on their clothes and bags and then leave them behind on the way
"Even though they don't bring the cat itself, that indirect exposure can
still cause significant allergic symptoms," Kelkar tells WebMD.
Windom agrees. "There have been some amazing studies that found huge
amounts of cat dander in places that cats have never been, like airplanes and
schools," says Windom. "It just falls off everywhere."
Treat your guests' belongings as warily as you would their cat. Ask guests to
put their things in a closed room and then make sure you don't go in. Or you
could even ask guests to leave their coats and bags in the garage. You might
feel like a crummy host making demands, but you won't be much fun if you spend
the whole visit sneezing anyway. Just explain the problem and any reasonable
person should understand. If none of this works, try to meet your friends
outside your home.
Humidity -- too much or too little. As you probably know, moisture
is a crucial ingredient for the growth of mold. Dust mites also thrive in a
moist environment. So experts say that if you have allergies, you should try to
keep humidity levels at 40% or below.
But air that's too dry -- under 20% humidity -- isn't any good either. When the
air is dry, the body's natural response is to moisturize it. In the process,
Portnoy says, your nasal passages generate excess mucus and make you stuffed
"People often blame dust in their heating vents for allergy symptoms in the
fall and winter," Portnoy tells WebMD. "But I think it's more likely
just the body's response to dry air."
Here's a tip: get a hygrometer, a simple device that reads the humidity in your
home. That way, you can either humidify or dehumidify, depending on the
Electrical appliances -- especially your fancy air filter. You might
have shelled out hundreds on a special ionizing air filter to protect your
lungs. But it might be doing you more harm than good.
"All electrical appliances, including air filters, generate ozone,"
says Jonathan A. Bernstein, MD, an allergist and professor of clinical medicine
at the University of Cincinnati. Ozone is a gas that's a well-known irritant
for people with allergies -- that's why people with asthma should stay inside
on days with high ozone levels. But what's even worse is that many air cleaners
deliberately churn out ozone as a means of freshening the air.
"These devices are a big problem," says Bernstein. "Ozone can
really be dangerous for people with asthma."
Stoves and heaters. Combustion -- in gas stoves, fireplaces,
kerosene lamps, and many other devices and appliances -- can produce nitrogen
dioxide and other pollutants. If they're not vented to the outside, the gases
they produce are coming directly into your living space. So, if possible, avoid
using unvented appliances. Use fireplaces and wood stoves sparingly. And try
not to rely on portable kerosene or unvented gas heaters at all.
Furniture, rugs, and home improvements. If you're remodeling or
redecorating,don't be surprised if your allergies act up. Many furnishings and
construction materials contain formaldehyde and other volatile organic
compounds (VOCs) that might irritate your airways. They include the glue used
in carpet installation, the particleboard on your kitchen cabinets, the foam in
your furniture, or the insulation in your walls, says Portnoy.
Most of these irritants will fade over time, but it can take weeks or months.
"If you can still smell it, it's definitely still a potential
irritant," says Portnoy.
If possible, start with prevention. Choose products that are less likely to
cause symptoms. Go for real wood over particleboard, or at least seal the
particleboard with a low-VOC sealant. Ask for carpets that are free of
formaldehyde. Use low-VOC paints. If VOC-producing products are already in the
house, try to limit your exposure. Ventilate the home as well as you can, so
that the irritant doesn't become too concentrated.
Your spouse's workplace. Yes, even someone else's on-the-job
exposure to irritants can affect you. If someone in your family works at a
factory, garage, or laboratory -- or anywhere else with chemical irritants --
he or she can bring them home. And that could start you sneezing and coughing.
If possible, ask your spouse to change his or her clothing after work or
immediately upon arriving home.
Global warming. Many experts believe that climate change is making
life worse for allergy sufferers. Global warming is associated with increased
levels of carbon dioxide (CO2.) "Plants are happier as CO2 levels
increase," says Portnoy. So what's the result? Some species of plants are
thriving, and the length of their pollen season is getting longer.
Portnoy says that the ragweed allergy season has been extended by almost a
month over the last 10 or 15years. While it used to run from Aug. 15 to Oct. 1,
Portnoy says that it's now dragging on from Aug. 1 through the middle of
October. And that's not all. "There's also been an overall increase in
ragweed pollen counts and the potency of the pollen," he says.
Aside from doing your bit to slow climate change, there's not much you can do
about this on your own. Just be aware that the pollen season might be coming
sooner than you expect -- and be ready for it.