The People's Perspective on Medicine

How Can You Allergy-Proof Your Bedroom to Control Congestion?

Health professionals often prescribe drugs to control allergy symptoms. What if you could allergy-proof your home to eliminate the source of the problem.

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.

Corticosteroid Sprays:

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.

Allergy-Proof Tips:

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.,,

Vacuum Cleaners:

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.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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I put my non-washable pillows in the dryer on high for 20 minutes every week. Really helps avoid a stuffy nose in the night and morning. Works for decor pillows and stuffed toys, too.

Thanks for this hint about air duct cleaning. I bought a house last spring and have had the worst spring, summer and fall bronchial and allergy problems in many many years. Thought I’d get the air ducts clean. Will certainly ask my a.c. person if this is the same case. This is an older house too. Hate to think I’d have to replace the ducting system but will certainly find out.

You said to encase our mattresses, pillows, and box springs with allergen-impermeable bed covers and then later in the article you say… “Sadly, well-conducted clinical trials have established conclusively that this effort is ineffective.,,”

So much for that idea.

Well, I do happen to agree that our houses are permeated with allergens, and I’m not so sure anyone has a good answer.

Check your air intake ducts in basement, as many have leaks that pull air from basement that typically has high mold. Most modern construction uses space between joists covered with foil-coated cardboard stapled to under floors. You need to tape or caulk the edges to seal it.
I was surprised when someone was smoking in my basement that I could smell it strongly on 2nd floor. This is when I discovered how faulty they make intake ducts in new construction today. Check yours, and see.

Thank you so much. For years I have been telling people with allergies to do these things. I have been trying to convince my husband that dust mites are a problem in our humid climate.

Another trick for reducing allergens in the bedroom is to throw back your covers in the morning and DO NOT make your bed! Dust mites will die when exposed to light, and by airing out the sheets and covers you reduce the number that build up. At least that is the theory. I started having sinus allergies about 15 years ago and was allergy tested, and dust mites were one of the major culprits. When I heard about this trick I decided to try it, and my sinus congestion at night now definitely is less. I used to have terrible sneezing attacks if I had to get up in the night to use the bathroom. On coming back to bed, it would start and would not stop unless I got up again and took sinus medication. Eventually it would settle down (just in time for me to have to get up in the morning), but I rarely have this problem anymore since I started not making the bed! Of course changing the sheets and vacuuming regularly also helps.

When we moved into our house In 1992 we all started having allergic symptoms constantly. I happened to see an ad for air duct cleaning and called the company. When the man came to do the cleaning, he looked at the duct work and said they couldn’t clean it. He took me to the basement and stuck a knife right into the duct coming out of the furnace. What?! He then cut out a piece and showed me it wasn’t metal; it was insulation-like fiberglass covered with a sort of heavy metallic foil on the outside. Our house was built in 1978 and apparently this kind of ductwork was commonly used then.

The fiberglass was rough-textured and dirty and was probably harboring all kinds of allergens. We had all the ducts replaced with metal ones and our symptoms went away, as long as we remember to replace the filter regularly.

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