Is Your Home Making You Sick?

How to take control of indoor allergens.

Spring brings many lovely things, but for 50 million U.S. allergy sufferers, it also ushers in months of sniffly, sneezy discomfort—both indoors and out. During allergy season, experts say, extra pollen in the air can easily enter homes through doors and windows. “In the Northeast, the peak time for tree allergies usually starts in March, and grass-allergy season typically doesn’t end until the first frost,” notes Sandra Gawchik, D.O., a clinical immunologist based in Chester, Pennsylvania.

“Perennial indoor allergens include dust mites, animal dander, cockroach droppings and mold,” adds immunologist Linda Cox, M.D., of the Allergy and Asthma Center in Oakland Park, Florida. In fact, without your realizing it, your home could be making you sick. How can you evict unwanted allergens and make your abode sneeze-free? Doctors Gawchik and Cox offer these tips:

Make the bedroom a pet-free zone. “Most people would rather get rid of their doctor than their dog,” admits Dr. Gawchik with a laugh, “but if you’re severely allergic or have asthma, it’s best to ban pets from the space in which you sleep.” Also, a recent study found that giving your feline a twice-weekly bath can drastically decrease the severity of dander symptoms.

Switch to evening runs. “The majority of plants pollinate in the morning, between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.,” says Dr. Gawchik. Turn your morning jog into an after-work one to avoid this prime irritation interval.

Redecorate. “As a general rule, carpets aren’t good for allergies,” says Dr. Cox. They harbor dust mites, grow mold when damp and cling stubbornly to pet dander despite repeated vacuuming. Replace wall-to-wall mats with tiles or hardwood whenever possible, and let area rugs bake in the sun to kill dust mites. “Also cover comforters, mattress pads and pillows with tightly woven casings that repel skin, hair and pet fur, which dust mites live off,” says Dr. Gawchik. You can find such products at the Allergy Solutions website,

Boil, freeze, repeat. To destroy dander, mites and mold spores, wash bedding and clothing every seven to 14 days in temperatures above 130 degrees Fahrenheit. “I also tell patients to put kids’ stuffed animals in the freezer for 48 hours every other week,” says Dr. Gawchik. “The arid cold kills mites.”

Keep the outdoors out. Resist the temptation to open doors and windows, as that warm spring breeze brings with it scores of pollen spores. Instead, run your AC to lower mite-friendly humidity levels, and turn off overhead fans that only blow around more dust. “Also consider a HEPA [high- efficiency particulate air] filter,” says Dr. Cox—these cost about $50, “but they trap about 99 percent of unwanted air allergens, making them a good investment.” Finally, for a sniffle-free night, wash your hair right before bed—especially if you’ve spent the day outside—to remove clinging pollen particles.

Be wary of roaches. You might think of these creepy-crawly critters as a strictly urban problem, but they can thrive in most any warm, dark, wet environment. And if you needed any more motivation to be vigilant against these pests, how’s this: Roach droppings can trigger severe allergic reactions. One study revealed that more kids are allergic to cockroaches than to cats—37 versus 23 percent. “To avoid attracting these and other insects, don’t leave dishes in the sink at night and keep food covered,” advises Dr. Cox. If you do spot roaches, be aggressive about regular extermination.

Mind mold. Mold loves to sprout in dank, dark spots—showers, basements, garbage pails and humidifiers. But it can also mushroom in less obvious locales, such as on old pillows. “Change your pillows once a year, or buy the cheaper, nonfeather kind you can periodically throw in the wash,” says Dr. Gawchik. She also advises keeping indoor humidity levels below 50 percent and ensuring that all surfaces, from floor to ceiling, remain dry and clean.

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