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Breathe easy
How to reduce allergens in your home

By JOANN PETASCHNICK

 

Millions of people have allergies caused by outdoor allergens that vanish with the change of seasons. But some allergens just donít go away: Theyíre lurking inside your home. Learning what they are and how to get rid of them can help you avoid problems.

Mighty Dust Mites

Dust mites are microscopic insect-like creatures that feed off the dead skin cells that normally fall off our bodies and collect in mattresses, pillows, carpeting and upholstered furniture. Statistics show that the average mattress holds nearly 2 million dust mites. For their minute size, dust mite droppings (not the insects) can create huge allergy problems.

"Dust mites become part of the household environment. You can be a great housekeeper and you will have them It has nothing to do with the cleanliness of your house," says Dr. Steven Cohen of Allergic Diseases S.C. in West Allis. "Dust mites are primarily found in mattresses, pillows and carpeting in the bedroom; they stick to the fibers. And, since we spend about one-third of our lives in bed, they can be a particular problem if you are allergic."

You can try to alleviate dust mite problems by regularly laundering your bedding, according to Cohen. "It helps to cover your mattress, box spring and pillows with allergen-proof covers and wash them every week or two in very hot water," he advises. Steam-clean rugs and carpets. The heat of the steam kills the dust mites.

In addition, replace furnace filters monthly, unless your furnace specifies otherwise. Look for high-efficiency filters that reduce allergens. "Room-size air purifiers are a good idea. Many of them have HEPA filters that decrease allergens," Cohen says. He also recommends avoiding wall-to-wall carpeting in the bedroom. "A hard surface floor is easier to keep clean."

Itís Not the Fur!

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 15 to 30 percent of people with allergies have an allergy to dogs, cats or other animals. Cats are the most common cause for pet allergies ó approximately 10 million people in the United States are allergic to cats. Pet allergies are caused by an immune system response to proteins present in the animal saliva, dander or urine.

Pet allergies can be a major problem if left untreated, according to Dr. Susan Higgins-Larkey, an allergy specialist with Allergy & Asthma Centers in Waukesha, Wauwatosa and Milwaukee. "We love our pets and often donít want to part with them," she says. The No. 1 piece of advice for allergy sufferers is to keep the pets out of the bedroom, and off of the bed and any upholstered furniture or carpeting. "If you have hardwood floors, it is easier to reduce the buildup of dander," she says.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no nonallergenic breeds of dogs or cats. Dander is not found in the fur, as many believe, but in the saliva or skin flakes of the animal, Higgins-Larkey says. "It doesnít matter how much a dog or cat sheds. Even a hairless dog or cat produces saliva."

However, different people have different levels of tolerance to animals. "You canít predict the tolerance level someone will have," Higgins-Larkey says. "The best way to control the allergy is to take away the animal. But if the person is unwilling to do that, there are medicines and even shots that can help you cope with the allergy symptoms." It also helps to bathe the pet frequently and wash or vacuum their bedding or sleeping areas as often as possible.

Breaking the Mold

About 10 percent of Americans are allergic to mold, according to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. "In the Great Lakes area, we have greater exposure to mold than other parts of the country. Most of it is outdoors, but indoor mold is usually found in areas of your home that become damp like the bathroom or basement. Indoor mold tends to feed on humidity," Higgins-Larkey says.

The most common reaction to mold is flu-like symptoms or asthma. "If you find that you have a mold problem in your home, you can take some common-sense control measures," she says. "Correct any source of water or seepage. Repair areas that might be water damaged and remove carpeting from concrete floors, especially in the basement. Use a dehumidifier during humid weather and try to keep the humidity in your home at less than 50 percent."

In the bathroom, be sure to clean bathtubs, shower stalls and shower curtains with a disinfectant to kill mold and mildew. "The best cleaner is a 1-to-10 water to bleach solution," Higgins-Larkey says. Good ventilation and air purifiers are vital for limiting mold growth.

Irritants

Other things in the household environment ó smoke, fumes, and detergents ó may cause a person to sneeze, but they are not allergens, says Cohen. "For example, if you come over to sweep out my garage, youíll stir up some dust and, as your nose filters the air that you breathe, it will cause you to sneeze in order to flush out your system. That dust is an irritant, not an allergen. The difference is that allergies are caused by things that are alive or were once alive." M