For a person with dog allergies, life in a dog-loving country isn't easy. Approximately 37%-47% of American households have a dog. Dog dander gets everywhere, including places where dogs have never set a paw. According to the National Institutes of Health, detectable levels of pet dander are in every home in the U.S.
So, how can you get through life with an allergy to man's best friend? Here's a rundown of the causes and treatments of dog allergies, along with tips on reducing exposure.
Symptoms of Dog Allergies
The symptoms of dog allergies are usually like those of any other nasal allergy. They include:
Some people with dog allergies also have skin reactions. For instance, their skin might break out where a dog licks them. Others with more severe allergies might develop hives on their face or chest. People with asthma as well as pet allergies can have especially serious symptoms.
Causes of Dog Allergies
You may have heard that some dog breeds trigger allergy symptoms while others don't, or that short-haired dogs are safe while long-haired dogs prone to shedding are not. But on the whole, experts say that isn't the case. In fact, two dogs of the same breed can each give off very different levels of allergen.
It's not the dog's hair or fur that's the real problem. Instead, people are usually allergic to the dander -- flakes of dead skin -- as well as the saliva and urine. So, no matter how long or short the hair, any dog can potentially cause an allergic reaction.
You might wonder why dog dander has such an effect on you. People with allergies have oversensitive immune systems. Their bodies overreact to harmless substances -- like dog dander -- and attack it as they would bacteria or viruses. The sneezing and watery eyes are just the side effects of the body's attempt to destroy or flush out the allergen.
Testing for Dog Allergies
Your doctor can do either a skin test or a blood test that will detect allergen-specific IgE (Immunoglobulin E) to find out if you have dog allergies. Even if you're pretty certain that you're allergic, testing is always a good idea. Some people who assume that they have dog allergies turn out not to have them. Instead, they're allergic to the pollen or mold that the dog is carrying in on its coat from outside.
While allergy tests are helpful, they're not always conclusive. So if you own a dog, your doctor might want you to try living without it for a while to see how you do. To get a good sense of your symptoms, it might take some extended time apart. It often takes months before the level of dander in the house drops down to a level resembling that of a house without a dog.
Treating Dog Allergies
Dog allergies can be treated with standard allergy drugs. Your doctor might recommend:
- Antihistamines, which block the effects of a chemical that triggers dog allergy symptoms; they're sold over the counter -- like cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), fexofenadine (Allegra), and loratadine (Claritin) -- or by prescription. Some antihistamines such as azelastine (Astelin) are available as nasal sprays.
- Decongestants, which reduce swelling in the nose and relieve congestion; examples are over-the-counter Sudafed and Allegra-D
- Nasal steroids, which are sprays that relieve allergy symptoms by calming inflammation, are a first-line treatment for allergies. Budesonide (Rhinocort Allergy), fluticasone (Flonase), and triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24HR) sprays are available over-the-counter, while others are available by prescription.
Allergy shots are another option for people with dog allergies. They don't work for everyone, and a full course of treatment can take years. But they can really help some people with pet allergies. Talk about the pros and cons with your doctor.
Your Environment and Dog Allergies
Most allergists agree that although medication may help, the best way to control dog allergies is to avoid contact with dogs. Here are some tips:
- Keep your distance. Don't touch, pet, or kiss a dog. As best you can, avoid going to homes with dogs. If you have to stay in a house with a dog, ask if it can be kept out of the room in which you'll sleep for a few months before your arrival.
- Use your medicine. If you know that you'll be coming into contact with a dog soon, start taking your medicine a few weeks ahead of time. By taking medication preventatively, you might stop an allergic reaction before it starts.
- Be wary of visitors who own dogs. Dog dander can cling to clothing and luggage. So even if your house guests leave their dogs at home, they can bring the dander with them -- and that can cause you a lot of trouble.
Of course, some of the above advice won't help that much if you already have a dog in your home. Even then, there are still things you can do:
- Clean fanatically. Dog dander can get everywhere. So you need to sweep and mop the floors, vacuum rugs, and clean furniture regularly. If possible, get a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Regular vacuum filters can't catch the allergens and just send them back into the air.
- Make your home easier to clean. Pull up the carpet. Get rid of the rugs and drapes. Ditch the dusty, overstuffed furniture. Reducing the number of items that can catch dust and dander can help with your dog allergy symptoms.
- Filter the air. Central heat and air conditioning can push dog dander into every room in your house -- even those that the dog isn't allowed in. A central air cleaner -- as well as filters on the vents themselves -- can help.
- Keep the dog out of your bedroom. Since you spend a third of every day in the bedroom, it's key to keep it as free of dog dander as possible. A closed door won't completely seal out the allergens, but it will help.
- Don't give the dog free rein. Protect yourself by making other areas of the house dog-free too. Depending on the climate and surroundings, you can also consider keeping the dog outside as much as possible.
Will bathing your dog have any effect on allergy symptoms? Experts aren't sure; some studies have shown that baths reduce the amount of airborne dander, while others haven't found a difference. You can certainly try out weekly baths and see what happens. Just make sure that someone without dog allergies is doing the actual bathing.
You may find that these techniques help your dog allergies. But if they don't, you have to consider more drastic measures -- like giving up the dog. It's hard to do, but you have to think realistically. It's unfair to people with dog allergies if they can't be in their own homes without enduring a runny nose and relentless sneezing fits. Uncontrolled allergies can also contribute to asthma, which is a serious disease.
So if you or a family member has dog allergies, talk to a doctor. Getting control of symptoms will not only make you feel better, but it will help protect you from becoming sicker.