Is your home your castle? Many people feel that their home is a refuge from the outside world. But a study of 7,000 bedrooms found that a large majority are contaminated with allergens (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, online, Nov. 23, 2017). Pets and pests are the biggest problem. Is it possible to allergy-proof your home?
Indoor Air Pollution
We used to think that people with allergy symptoms were most vulnerable to outside pollen in the spring and fall. Now, many people suffer all year long. In the winter we spend a lot of time indoors because of bad weather and reduced daylight. That means more exposure to indoor allergens.
Houses are tightly sealed for energy efficiency and may trap chemical gasses and dust from a variety of sources. Cleaning agents left on floors and other surfaces dry and can eventually circulate on dust particles throughout the house. They are inhaled with each breath.
Fire retardants and other chemicals used in fabrics and foams in furniture, mattresses, and electrical insulation can be irritating to the airway. Mold can flourish wherever there is humidity–in basements, crawl spaces, bathrooms and air ducts.
The Bedroom is Bad!
The bedroom may be one of the worst rooms in the house when it comes to what experts call “allergen reservoirs.” Mattresses, blankets and pillows can harbor dust mites. Their excrements (mite poop) are highly allergenic for many people.
When people toss and turn during sleep they stir up the bedding. Dust particles are easily inhaled during the six to eight hours we spend sleeping. It’s hardly any wonder that many people wake up in the morning with congestion.
The study of nearly 7,000 bedrooms discovered that virtually everyone was exposed to at least one allergen. The investigators uncovered three to six allergens in about 75 percent of the bedrooms they examined. In addition to dust mite allergens, they found allergens from dogs, cats, mice, rats, cockroaches and mold.
Typical Allergy Treatments:
With so much exposure, it’s hardly surprising that many people report year-round allergy symptoms. The total allergenic body burden can have a profound impact on symptoms such as sneezing, sniffling and wheezing.
Allergy treatment often involves controlling how the body reacts to all these allergens. Corticosteroids are powerful immune-suppressing drugs. They calm the body’s over-reaction to allergens. People can now access steroid nasal sprays like budesonide (Rhinocort Allergy Spray), fluticasone (Flonase Allergy Relief) or triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24HR) over the counter.
Although such products can ease symptoms, they may sometimes cause systemic side effects. For example, the Flonase label states that:
“When using this product the growth rate of some children may be slower…Stop use and ask a doctor if you have, or come into contact with someone who has, chicken pox, measles or tuberculosis…[or] you get new changes to your vision that develop after starting this product.”
Allergy-Proof or Allergy Treatment?
Instead of trying to dampen the body’s immune response, it might make sense to reduce allergen exposure. We have never understood why allergy experts don’t send someone to assess the indoor air quality of a house before prescribing a whole bunch of medications. We think it is crazy to treat the symptoms of allergies if you don’t examine your environment and try to allergy-proof what’s causing the problem in the first place.
If you lived in a house with faulty wiring that kept blowing fuses or tripping the circuit breakers every day, it would be foolish to ignore the underlying problem. Continually throwing the circuit breaker to the on position or replacing fuses might leave you vulnerable to a fire. In the old days, people sometimes stuck a penny in the fuse box to bypass the warning system completely. No doubt some homes burned down as a result.
We know of one family that moved into a charming old house. Within a few months, the dad starting sniffling and sneezing. Then he developed asthma for the first time in his life. Not long after, both children also became congested and had periodic bouts of asthma. They were all treated with various medications to relieve their symptoms. It wasn’t until they moved that their symptoms eventually went away and their need for allergy and asthma drugs disappeared.
Here are some recommendations from the National Institutes of Health to allergy-proof your house:
- Vacuum upholstered furniture and carpets weekly
- Wash blankets and sheets in hot water every week
- Use allergen impermeable casings on mattresses, pillows and box springs
- Keep indoor humidity to 50 percent or lower (dust mites and mold hate low humidity)
- Prevent cats, dogs and other pets from sharing the bedroom space
- Seal holes that would allow rats, mice, roaches or other pests entry into the house and keep food or water out of their reach
Air Filtration: An Important Step to Allergy-Proof Your House
Our first choice in air-cleaning technology is the HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. These devices are made of densely packed fibers that look like thick paper. The filters are pleated or folded and look like a mini-accordion. That way they maximize the air’s contact with the filter. Industrial-strength HEPA filters are used in computer clean rooms, pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, and hospitals, where it is essential to trap very small dust particles.
To install a whole-house HEPA filter you will need professional help. Ask a heating and air-conditioning (HVAC) expert whether they can retrofit such a system for your home. We think the Aprilaire Media Air Cleaner (formerly Space-Gard) is the place to start (800-334-6011 or on the Web at www.aprilaire.com).
This HEPA-type filter achieves 99 percent efficiency for particles bigger than five microns and 95 percent efficiency for the smallest one-micron-sized particles. (Pollen and mold spores usually range from 10 to 100 microns.) The longer you use the filter, the more efficient it becomes, at least to a point. It should be changed every one to two years.
If you cannot afford either a HEPA filter or an electronic air cleaner, consider the less efficient, do-it-yourself 4-inch American Air Filter for around $40 or the 1-inch 3M Filtrete for about $25. These should fit into your existing air return system in place of the old-fashioned filter you may be using.
We find it astonishing that there hasn’t been more clinical research on home air filtration. Pharmaceutical companies have spent hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars testing drugs to relieve symptoms. Only a pittance has been devoted to air quality in the home and its relationship to symptom relief.
One review of the available research concluded that:
“Among patients with allergies and asthma, use of air filters is associated with fewer symptoms.”
A small study showed that a HEPA air cleaner could reduce the amount of cat allergen levels in the house, but it did not demonstrate improvement in nasal symptom scores. Another tiny study showed that a HEPA filter could reduce dog allergens in the air.
Don’t Forget Dehumidification To Allergy-Proof the Home!
A pilot study in two daycare centers demonstrated that when a HEPA filter was combined with a dehumidification system, airborne fungal spores were substantially diminished. Most people do not realize how serious dampness and humidity are for the home environment. Wherever there is moisture, mold has a marvelous opportunity to multiply. Mold spores can be highly allergenic.
The solution is to get rid of the source of the moisture and keep dampness under control by dehumidifying. The drier your home castle, the less likely it is that there will be mold, mildew, and dust mites. These latter nasty little critters live in mattresses, bedding, carpets, and furniture. Mite poop is also highly allergenic and is responsible for many peoples’ discomfort. Dry air makes it harder for mites to flourish.
By the way, we used to encourage folks with allergies or asthma to encase their mattresses and pillows with allergen-impermeable bed covers. The goal was to separate the allergy sufferer from the mite poop. Sadly, well-conducted clinical trials have established conclusively that this effort is ineffective.,,
You can reduce dust and pollen with good air filtration, but you can never eliminate it. A decent vacuum cleaner can go a long way toward reducing the dirt and dust that can cause allergies. But many machines suck up dust and allergens at one end and spew them out with the exhaust at the other end. These vacuum cleaners may actually cause more problems for the allergy sufferer.
Choosing a vacuum cleaner is a highly personal decision. We like this Miele machine because it comes with a HEPA filter, is highly rated by Consumer Reports, and has served us successfully for years. You may find the Sears canister vacuum just as effective at a substantially lower cost.
Downside: A little on the pricey side. Filter needs to be changed regularly.
Cost: Approximately $800.
According to Consumer Reports, vacuum cleaner models:
“with a HEPA filter have been very effective at reducing emissions. However, some models that don’t have HEPA filters have performed just as well in our tests, and such vacuums may cost less than HEPA models.”
The Sears Kenmore canister models generally scored high in the Consumer Reports testing. The Kenmore Elite Pet Friendly Cross Over 21814 model, at $317 was a “Consumer Reports Best Buy.” They also recommend the Panasonic MC-CG937 vacuum at around $330. Miele vacuums come with HEPA filters and range from $500 to $800. We have been very pleased with ours. The Bosch Premium and the Aerus Lux Guardian (at roughly $1,500), also come with HEPA filters.
The People’s Pharmacy Perspective:
Medicines like steroid sprays, antihistamines or decongestants may temporarily ease allergy symptoms. But for year-round allergy prevention, environmental control may be the best approach. While it may not be possible to eliminate all allergens, especially if you have a pet, you can allergy-proof your home in a way that should reduce symptoms.