The air inside our homes can be two to five times as polluted as the air outside—bad news, especially for the more than 20 percent of us who suffer from allergies. And research suggests that that percentage is increasing steadily. “For one thing, climate change and rising carbon dioxide levels have created an environment that’s more hospitable to the growth of allergens such as mold,” says Jay Portnoy, MD, director of allergy, asthma and immunology at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. “What’s more, we’re living in cleaner indoor environments these days, so our immune systems go into overdrive when we’re exposed to something unfamiliar, like dust mites or fur.” That’s guaranteed torment for a lot of us, who have spent most of the last few months indoors. The goods news is there’s a lot you can do to eliminate them.
Beat mold in the bathroom
Install a ventilation fan; run it during every bath and shower to reduce mold-friendly moisture. At the very least, leave the bathroom door ajar or crack open a window. Mold also thrives in damp corners, so once a week, wipe around the sink, tub and toilet.
Toss the plug-in room air freshener
Some emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can exacerbate respiratory problems. VOCs have also been shown to cause headaches in susceptible people.
Ditch the vinyl
These types of shower curtains emit VOCs, as well as other potentially lung-irritating compounds, like phthalates. A nylon curtain, which can be thrown into the wash as needed, is a better choice for your health and the environment.
Keep it covered
Put dust mite-proof covers, ideally microfiber ones, on mattresses, box springs, comforters and pillows. They’ll prevent the critters from penetrating your bedding. Wash your sheets once a week in hot water (aim for at least 130 degrees), then throw them in the dryer at a high temperature.
Declare a pet-free zone
A 2011 study found that cat owners who banned the felines from their bedrooms were much less likely to develop kitty allergies.
Read more: Your 12 Worst Allergy Mistakes
Sleuth out drips
Even a small trickle from the pipes under the sink can lead to mold.
For people with asthma who have a certain gene variant, living in a home with mold may increase the risk of a severe attack, according to a 2010 Harvard Medical School Study.
Inspect your fridge for moisture, and when you clean it, pay close attention to door gaskets and drip pans, where mold tends to grow.
Fan out fumes
Install an exhaust fan over the stove, with vents that lead outside, to get rid of irritating cooking fumes and reduce moisture around the room.
In addition to triggering allergies, cooking fumes—particularly those from gas stoves—may up your cancer risk. The fumes have been found to contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heterocyclic amines, higher and mutated aldehydes, and fine and ultrafine particles. Having an exhaust fan reduces your risk.
Store food safely
Well-sealed plastic or glass containers should discourage roaches and mice from making themselves at home.
Choose washable window coverings
Opt for curtains or shades that you can wipe down, launder or send to the dry cleaner. Or skip them entirely!
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Spruce up your seating
Consider a couch made from leather: It’s less likely to harbor allergens. If you want to hang on to your upholstered one, run a HEPA vacuum over it at least weekly.
Invest in a vacuum
Look for one that has a HEPA filter and a certification mark from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. This means it not only removes a significant amount of allergens but also prevents them from leaking back out into the air.
Check your temp
Keep the digits below 68 degrees; dust mites thrive in toastier conditions. Use a hygrometer (about $10 at drugstores) to measure in-home humidity, too. The sweet spot: 35 to 50 percent. Anything lower will dry out nasal passages; anything higher encourages mold. (Another reason to keep your thermostat set at 68: Keeping your home too cozy-warm can lead to weight gain. It’s one of the 10 ways your house is making you fat.)
Do it (at least) once a week to remove allergens from surfaces. Use a microfiber cloth or dusting wand—the superthin fibers trap more debris than regular towels or dusters.
Use a filter for forced air systems
Your best bet: a pleated filter that has a MERV (i.e., effectiveness) rating of between 8 and 12. You can have it installed in your system directly. If you’ve got baseboard heat, you may want to purchase a few portable HEPA filter units (they cost $100 and up) and place them around the house. You probably don’t need to get your air ducts professionally cleaned—research doesn’t prove that doing so improves air quality, and it can actually make things worse by stirring up allergens and other particulates. Replace your filters regularly, based on the manufacturer’s instructions.
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Box it up
Clutter is a dust-magnet, not to mention bugs, mold, and mice. Recycle old newspapers, magazines, cans, and grocery bags every week, and for everything else, store as many items as possible in plastic bins to minimize dust.
Look for leaks
Repair any water damage that can encourage mold growth. Even if you have mold only in your basement, your heating or cooling system can pump it into other parts of your house.
Degrime your gutters
Reducing allergen exposure outside may reduce your allergy symptoms inside by keeping your body from getting overloaded with irritants. Remove dead leaves near the foundation and gutters; they lead to dampness, which fosters mold.
Wash your kids’ stuffed animals
Your kids’ stuffed animals are a magnet for dust mites. Keep only two or three on your little one’s bed; put the rest in plastic containers. Wash them at least once a month. Or just put them in a hot dryer for 20 minutes to zap mites.
Take shoes off outside
Your shoes pick up allergens from outside (hello, pollen and leaf mold!) and bring them indoors. Buy an outdoor mat so you can rub your soles free of debris before walking inside, or take off your shoes and leave them by the front door.
Read more: 10 Ways to Soothe a Sore Throat
Nemo may be one of the few pets that are hypoallergenic, but the tank he’s frolicking in is an incubator of mold. Give the tank and filters a good scrubbing at least once a month.
Don’t overwater your plants
While certain houseplants (chrysanthemums, for example) reduce indoor air pollutants, you can have too much of a good thing. “If you don’t clear out debris, the soil can harbor mold,” Dr. Portnoy says. Limit the number of indoor plants and be sure you don’t overwater them.
Put your printer away from your desk
Studies have shown that laser printers emit VOCs and particles that are associated with asthma and can harm the lungs. Keep yours in a well-ventilated area at least 10 feet away from your desk.
Go green to get clean
To eliminate allergens, you need to scrub. Problem is, some cleaners can make symptoms worse. “Many have quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, and bleach, which are asthmagens,” says Johanna Congleton, PhD, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, D.C. In fact, one study of more than 3,500 people found that those who used spray cleaners at least once a week had a 30 to 50 percent increased risk of asthma. Check out EWG’s guide to green, lung-friendly products at ewg.org/guides/cleaners.
The top indoor allergens
First up: Dust mites.
More than 25 percent of us are allergic to these tiny bugs that live in dust. The critters munch on skin particles and dander, so you’ll find them wherever there are people and pets. You’re not allergic to the mites themselves but to a protein they excrete. The mites’ waste can hang out on pillows and mattresses or in carpeting and not bother you, but when you disturb them—say, by fluffing your duvet—they’ll fly into the air and trigger symptoms.
Cat allergy is the most common pet allergy, but at least 15 percent of us are allergic to both cats and dogs. It’s not their fur per se that has you sneezing but their dander, saliva and pee.
Roaches and rodents
Up to 98 percent of urban homes have these allergens, even if they can’t be seen. Apartment dwellers may find themselves battling roaches, and suburban and country home owners may face rodent infestations. As with your furry friends, you’re allergic to their feces and saliva, not just to the critters themselves.
You’ve probably heard of toxic black mold (aka Stachybotrys chartarum), but many kinds of indoor mold can cause allergies. While it tends to grow in dark, damp spots, this allergen can sprout up anywhere that water has leaked. The best way to tell if you have mold is to see it (it’s usually black, brown or green) and smell it (it’s got a musty odor). Get rid of mold by scrubbing with a solution of 1/2 cup of bleach and 1 gallon of water.
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