Allergen Hide and Seek: Learn How to Locate and Kill Household Allergens

Thorough, regular vacuuming is recommended to help get rid of dust and dander.
Thorough, regular vacuuming is recommended to help get rid of dust and dander.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

There are a lot of things you can do to keep unwelcome guests out of your home. From alarm systems that deter intruders to products that keep pests at bay, you try to make sure your house is a safe, secure haven for you and your family.

But what you might not realize is that there are millions of invaders locked up in your home with you. They sleep in your bed, lounge in your bathtub and cozy up on your couch. Not only are these freeloaders living rent-free, they may be doing so at the expense of your health. Meet the other residents of your home: allergens.

While not quite as objectionable as an armed criminal or a disease-carrying rodent, allergens do pose a threat. But the levels of danger or inconvenience they bring to a family depend a lot on the sensitivities of the people who live there. Most allergens are harmless substances.

However, a person with allergies has an immune system that incorrectly identifies some things, like dust or pet dander, as dangerous. The body then creates a host of symptoms -- sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes -- in a misguided effort to protect itself. Imagine how your family dog views your mail carrier. She's a familiar face who shows up to your house every day; yet Fido gives her the same loud warning he would a burglar. Similarly, those with allergies have immune systems that are acting as over-protective guard dogs.

If you suspect you or a family member has allergies, you can visit an allergist to find out the specific substances that are causing the most problems. After exposing your skin to a host of potential offenders, the doctor will note how your skin reacts (the ones causing burning or itching are the ones you're allergic to). Knowing which allergens are problematic for your family is important because those are the ones you'll want to target first when cleaning your home. To help you eliminate those allergens, we'll give you a guide to finding the troublemakers where they lurk. Keep reading to learn more.

The Top Offenders: Targeting Allergens Where They Hide

You're probably never going to get every single allergen out of your home. For one thing, their numbers are massive. A recent report by CBS News suggested that as many as 2 million dust mites reside in a single mattress. That's just one type of allergen on one surface in your home. Another problem you'll face is that, despite the allergens you get rid of, many more new ones are entering your home each day. But don't fret; you don't have to quit your day job and become a professional housekeeper just to put a dent in your home's allergen levels. There a number of simple changes (and a few big ones) you can incorporate into your lifestyle and cleaning routine to help reduce the number of sneezes in your home. Start by knowing what you're targeting.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the allergens most people react to are pollen, mold, pet dander and dust. While these particular offenders are pretty common, they're also fairly easy to control.

Pollen travels into your home through your windows and doors, on your clothing, in your hair and on your pets. Cut the numbers of this substance entering your house by keeping doors and windows closed and relying on air conditioning for temperature control. If you spend a lot of time outdoors -- especially in spring and fall -- it's a good idea to shower and wash your hair at night so that you don't carry pollen with you into bed. And if your pet spends a lot of time outdoors, keep him out of bedrooms, when possible. You'll also want to dry your clothes indoors rather than outside on a clothesline.

Fighting Mold

Got mold? Killing it may help alleviate some of your painful allergy symptoms.
Got mold? Killing it may help alleviate some of your painful allergy symptoms.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Mold grows where it's damp, so you're likely to find it in rooms with a lot of moisture or humidity (bathrooms and utility rooms) or without windows (basements). It can also show up in kitchens underneath trashcan lids or where condensation may have built up. To prevent mold from taking up residence in your home, clean your bathrooms -- and any other mold-prone area -- thoroughly and often with a bleach-based solution, paying particular attention to walls, windows, fixtures and shower curtains. If you have a carpeted bathroom or basement, make updating the flooring a top priority. Air movement and climate control also help, so consider installing fans, keeping your unit clean, efficient and set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), and using dehumidifiers. Aim to keep the humidity in your home below 50 percent. One last thing: Keep in mind that houseplants can collect mold, so you'll want to remove any in your home if you have a family member sensitive to it.

But mold is just one allergen you'll have to combat. There's also pet dander and dust.

Dust and Dander

It's a common misconception that pet hair causes allergies. In fact, it's the proteins in pet dander -- sloughed off dead skin -- that can cause reactions in people. Dander can collect in dust and on many surfaces of the home, like carpeting and sofas, so thorough dusting and vacuuming is recommended on a regular basis. And, if possible, remove carpeting from your home and keep pets out of sleeping areas. If you decide to keep your carpeting, shampoo it frequently. However, you'll want to use a quick-drying machine to keep mold from building up in your carpet. An air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter is another option for keeping dander at bay.

Many of the strategies used for reducing pet dander, such as dusting, vacuuming, using air filters and removing carpeting, can also be used for dust removal. When dusting, use a microfiber or damp cloth; when vacuuming, use a machine with a HEPA filter. In addition, you might consider having your mattresses and pillows encased in allergen-proof covers. Your allergist may be able to recommend products for these purposes. Other dust-removal steps include eliminating clutter, buying washable curtains or blinds, and washing all of the bedding in your home in hot (130 degrees Fahrenheit/ 54 degrees Celsius) every one to two weeks.

If you'd like to learn more about ridding your home of allergens, keep reading for lots more information.

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Sources

  • American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. "Tips to Remember: Indoor Allergens." 2010. (June 24, 2011) http://www.aaaai.org/patients/publicedmat/tips/indoorallergens.stm
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. "Allergies: Things You Can Do to Control Your Symptoms." September 2010. (June 24, 2011) http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/allergies/basics/083.html
  • CBS News. "Spring Cleaning Allergens out of Your Home." March 20, 2010. (June 24, 2011) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/03/20/earlyshow/saturday/main6317190.shtml
  • Good Housekeeping. "5 Cleaning Tips for Allergy Relief." (June 24, 2011) http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/organizing/tips-for-allergy-relief
  • Mayo Clinic. "Allergy-proof your house." March 9, 2011. (June 24, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/allergy/HQ01514
  • Turner, Bambi. "5 Ways to Create an Allergen-free Bedroom." HowStuffWorks. (June 24, 2011) https://tlc.howstuffworks.com/home/5-ways-to-create-an-allergen-free-bedroom.htm