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Under Attack: Hidden Allergy Triggers

Mold, mites, and pet dander lurk where you'd never suspect.
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WebMD Feature

Sneezing and wheezing can hit at the most unlikely times. You know you've got an allergy, but sudden attacks can be very mysterious. Richard Weber, MD, an allergy specialist with the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, reveals a few clues.

Allergy Attack: Stuffed Animals in Hot Water

Kapok (a tree native to tropical America, Africa, and the East Indies) has long been used to stuff pillows and pooh bears. The seed pods are used as stuffing for pillows, sleeping bags, and furniture upholstery. Like bird feathers and down, kapok was among allergens suspected in causing allergic reactions in both adults and kids. However, recent studies have shown that the stuffing isn't the problem -- it's the dust mites and mold.

"Turns out, even the foam rubber, synthetic stuff gets just as contaminated as down feathers," Weber tells WebMD. "In any humid climate, there's a very good chance that pillows and toys -- no matter what they're stuffed with -- will get contaminated with dust mites and mold."

Rather than tossing out those beloved items, try washing them, he suggests. Hot water (130 F) and drying in a hot dryer kills dust mites. Adding a few drops of eucalyptus oil to the water also helps kill mites.

Allergy Attack: Pet Dander but No Pets?

Whether you've got pets or not, animal dander is likely lurking in your car or home. "You expect to find cat and dog dander where there are pets. But a number of studies have found significant levels in cars -- and in homes -- that have never had pets," Weber says.

In one recent study, researchers vacuumed the bus and taxi seats all over one city in Brazil. "When you look for dander, you find it," says Weber. "People with pets are carrying animal dander on their clothes, and deposit it wherever they sit. Movie theaters, planes, it's pervasive. The levels they deposit are high enough to trigger an allergic reaction. Half a dozen studies all over globe have looked at this issue -- the story's the same all over."

The best way to fight allergies from animal dander is to remove the pet from the home and avoid any contact. However if that's not possible, avoid or reduce contact with the animal.

When a thunderstorm rolls through, prepare for an allergy attack. Why? The winds stir up both mold spores and tiny particles released by pollen grains. It starts while the sun is still shining, says Weber. "It has to do with updrafts that often precede thunderstorms. They cause mold spore counts to go up astronomically, 100 times higher than normal."

As the storm passes through, winds also disrupt the grass pollen grains on the ground, causing them to release tiny particles -- particles that are 1,000 times smaller than the pollen grains, says Weber. "The particles don't show up on any pollen count. But a wave of cold air will sweep the stuff off the ground -- blow it just high enough to hit people in the face." Because the particles are so tiny, they are inhaled deeply into the lungs causing serious problems, he explains.

One thunderstorm can cause "a double-whammy before the storm rolls through, then afterward," Weber says. "Those fine particles can be very irritating."

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