Living & Managing: Living With Allergies: Allergy-Proof Your Environment
All allergy practitioners—from the most conservative to the most alternative—agree that environmental control should be your first “treatment.” After all, it’s natural, safe, and extremely effective.
“The very best preventive measures are those that get the patient away from the cause of the problem,” says Betty Wray, M.D., interim dean of the School of Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and a past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “All the medications we give help blunt the response, but they don’t do away with the problem.”
Environmental control isn’t the same as “running away” from your current environment. In most cases, moving to a new climate such as the mountains or beach is an exercise in futility. “Some people even move to different parts of the world to “get away’ from allergens,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, Prevention columnist and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Arizona. “For most, such moves are simply impractical, and often people find that in a short period of time they have developed new allergies to go with their new home.”
Fortunately, you can practice environmental control without packing your bags. If possible, avoid living near freeways, major roadways, and industrial parks. Environmental urban chemicals, such as ozone, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, can worsen asthma and allergies.
Next, focus on cleaning up your indoor environment. Because of improved home and office building insulation, indoor air can contain even more dust, lint, hair, smoke, and pollen than outdoor air.
Here are strategies to minimize exposure to common indoor allergens:
• Limit the spread of food around the house, and especially keep food out of bedrooms.
• Keep food and garbage in closed containers. Never leave food out in the kitchen.
• Mop the kitchen floor and wash countertops at least once a week.
• Eliminate water sources that attract cockroaches, such as leaky faucets and drainpipes.
• Plug crevices around the house through which cockroaches can enter.
• Use bait stations and other environmentally safe pesticides to reduce cockroach infestation.
• Encase your mattress and pillows in dustproof or allergen-impermeable covers.
• Wash all bedding and blankets once a week in hot water (at least 130° to 140°F) to kill dust mites.
• Replace wool or feathered bedding with synthetic materials and traditional stuffed animals with washable ones.
• If possible, replace wall-to-wall carpets in bedrooms with bare floors (linoleum, tile, or wood).
• Use a damp mop or rag to remove dust. Never use a dry cloth, since it stirs up mite allergens.
• Use a vacuum cleaner with either a double-layered microfilter bag or a HEPA (high-efficiency particle arrestor) filter.
• Designate a group of pots, pans, and utensils specifically for the preparation of allergy-free meals. Even a trace of a food allergen, such as peanuts or milk, can cause a reaction.
• Prepare several allergy-free meals at a time and freeze them until they’re ready to be consumed. This method will reduce the risk of cross-contamination that can happen when allergy-free and allergenic meals are prepared at the same time.
• Thoroughly clean your hands, utensils, and kitchen surface areas prior to cooking allergy-free meals. Most reactions occur when people eat food that they thought was safe. So it’s equally important to master a few detective skills.
• Learn the scientific and technical terms of allergens (for example, casein is a milk product, and albumin usually comes from egg).
• Read every label on each product purchased, even if you buy the same product all the time. Manufacturers often change ingredients without warning.
• Avoid purchasing products without an ingredient listing.
• When dining out, inform the waitstaff about your food allergy, and clarify the ingredients used to prepare the selected meal.
• Emphasize to family and friends that food allergy is serious and that a reaction can be fatal.[pagebreak]
• Get a nonallergic person to mow your lawn. If you must mow it yourself, wear a mask.
• Keep grass cut short.
• Be aware that pollen can also be transported indoors on people and pets.
• Dust rooms thoroughly with a damp cloth at least once a week.
• Wear protective gloves and a dust mask while cleaning to reduce exposure to dust and cleaning irritants.
• Use electric and hot water radiant heaters to provide a cleaner source of heat than blown air systems.
• Reduce the number of stuffed animals, wicker baskets, dried flowers, and other dust collectors in your home.
• Replace carpets with washable scatter rugs or bare floors.
• Instead of using fabric curtains, cover windows with shades made of plastic or another material that you can wipe clean or remove and wash.
• Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner to maintain relative humidity below 50%. In particular, you may need a dehumidifier in the basement. Remember to empty the container regularly and clean it often to prevent mildew formation.
• Air out closed spaces such as closets and bathrooms.
• Vent bathrooms and clothes dryers to the outside.
• Check faucets, pipes, and ductwork for leaks.
• When first turning on the air conditioner in your home or car, leave the room or drive with the windows open for several minutes to allow mold spores to disperse.
• Remove decaying debris from the yard, roof, and gutters.
• Avoid raking leaves, mowing the lawn, and working with peat, mulch, hay, and dead wood. If you must do yard work, wear a mask and avoid working on hot, humid days.
Odors & Fumes
• Avoid perfumes, room deodorizers, cleaning chemicals, paint, and talcum powder.
• Keep pets out of your home if possible.
• If keeping pets out of your home isn’t possible, keep them out of bedrooms and confined to areas without carpets or upholstered furniture.
• If you keep a cat, wash it once a week with soap and warm water to reduce airborne dander. Keep it outside as much as possible.
• Wear a dust mask when you’re near rodents such as mice and hamsters.
• After playing with your pet, wash your hands and clean your clothes to remove pet allergens.
• Avoid contact with soiled litter cages.
• Dust your home often with a damp cloth.
• Remember that pet allergens linger in house dust for months after the pet is gone. As a result, allergy and asthma symptoms may take some time to subside.
• Save outside activities for late afternoon or after a heavy rain, when pollen levels are lower.
• Smoking should not be allowed in the homes or cars of people with asthma or allergies. Ask family members and friends to smoke outdoors.
• Seek smoke-free environments in restaurants, theaters, and hotel rooms.
• If you smoke, find support to quit.
• If you buy trees for your yard, plant species that are less likely to aggravate allergies, such as catalpa, crape myrtle, dogwood, fig, fir, palm, pear, plum, redbud, and redwood.
• Avoid woodstoves and fireplaces.
Proof Your Home
Understanding and Managing Allergies
Part Two of Two: Allergy-Proof Your Home
As a little girl growing up in a small midwestern town, I can still hear my mother saying, “Open the windows, and let’s bring some fresh air into the house.” Now I am the mom, living in a large metropolis, tagged as one of the most challenging places to live with allergies. Yet, as bad as that outside air might be, surprisingly, it’s the indoor air that is much worse. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), our indoor air quality is 4-5 times worse than our polluted outdoor air. What’s a mother to do?
Why do we care?
It’s estimated 15 million Americans have asthma (including 1 in 13 school-aged children), 35 million suffer from upper respiratory symptoms that are allergic reactions to airborne allergens and allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic disease– costing our health care system $18 billion annually.
With 25 years of experience as a health care professional, an advocate for healthy living and as a mother of an allergic child– my passion lies in helping others help themselves. And, when it comes to allergies, one of my favorite topics is how to put our bodies (or our children’s) in a place of strength, allowing it to perform as nature intended, allowing it to self-heal from a place of prevention.
Our body is like a reservoir
In understanding the way allergic triggers can affect us, I like to use the example of comparing our body to a reservoir. In regards to our environment, life presents us many different scenarios. Sometimes our environmental conditions are controllable (such as our home) and sometimes they are not (school or work). For an allergy sensitive person, our environment affects the “reservoir.” Different factors can affect the reservoir: high pollen, grass or mold count and pet dander to name a few. Exposure to these factors fills the reservoir, and when the reservoir is full, it causes the dam to break. The allergy sufferer’s body is able to handle one trigger perhaps, but the combination of too many factors — several triggers in the environment, stress, or a period of poor eating habits — tips it over the edge. When the dam breaks, the symptoms of an allergic response appear: running nose, itchy watery-eyes, eczema, wheezing and asthma. This analogy may help explain why it’s hard to predict your body’s allergic reaction and why it can sometimes be more severe than others.
Allergy-proofing your home is do-able
Creating the best possible environment in our home is one positive step we can take to help our families lower their “reservoir” and manage their allergies from a place of prevention. Decreasing the exposure of these pesky allergy-triggers can make a significant, sometimes almost magical difference in your allergy “reservoir.” The good news; allergy-proofing your home is within everyone’s reach and do-able.
Where do I start?
There are numerous ideas when it comes to allergy-proofing your home. In this article I focus on eliminating the top three allergic triggers: dust and dust mites, pet dander and mold. The following three suggestions come from my research and personal experience in creating the best “allergy-trigger-free” environment for my family. Here are some of my favorites:
• Whole-House Air Filtration System
According to the results of a health impact study completed by scientists at Environmental Health & Engineering Inc., in collaboration with professors from the Harvard School of Public Health, Trane CleanEffectsTM, a whole-house air filtration system removes up to 99.98 percent of particles and allergens from the filtered air and more than 99 percent of the common flu virus, or Influenza A. This whole-house air filtration system removes things like, pollen, dust, mold and pet dander to name a few. The cost comes in at approximately $800-$1,100 installed. If you think this is pricey, weigh-out the cost of putting multiple portable units in your home to cover the space a whole-house air cleaner covers, in addition to regularly replacing expensive HEPA filters. The good thing about the Trane CleanEffects system is that it’s 8 times more effective than a HEPA filter and when it comes to cleaning it, all you have to do is either vacuum it or hose it down. You don’t have to replace the filter. The unit simply tells you when it’s time to clean it out.
• Allergy-Free Bedroom: Use allergy-free bedding, remove curtains/carpets, eliminate stuffed toys
You will spend one-third of your life in bed. Therefore, it makes sense to create a sleeping environment that is as allergy-free as possible. Dust mites lurk in bedding, soft furnishings and high pile carpet. Invest in allergy-free bedding which encases your pillow and mattress. Wash your bedding and one chosen stuffed toy once a week in hot water (160 degrees F) or use special laundry detergent that allows you to wash at any temperature. Remove carpets and curtains and replace with wood, tile or elements that don’t hold dust and mites.
• Pets live outside, or at a minimum, out of the bedroom
Dander from your dog or cat can float around in the air and be a trigger for allergies. 36 percent of Americans have dogs and 31 percent have cats. Cat allergens especially are “sticky” and adhere to clothing and other surfaces. If you’re going to have pets, at a minimum, keep your pets out of the allergy sufferer’s bedroom.
The bottom line
If the above suggestions appear drastic, just keep in mind the benefit ratio of incorporating some of these changes in exchange for living a potentially healthier, allergy-free life. Creating the best, allergy-trigger-free environment, contributes to keeping your environmental “reservoir” low. Prevention is the key. Be aware of your surroundings. Factors that may have previously “tipped you over the edge,” now removed, create a healthier environment, giving your body a chance to respond as it’s capable–naturally, beautifully and allergy-free.
In the Car
- Keep windows closed and set the air conditioner to use recirculated air if you are allergic to pollen.
- Don’t permit smoking in the car.
- Minimize walks in wooded areas or gardens.
- Check the forecast. Stay indoors as much as possible on hot, dry, windy days, when pollen counts are generally the highest.
- Try to avoid extreme temperature changes — they are triggers for some people with asthma.
- If possible, stay indoors between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., when outdoor pollen counts are usually highest.
- Wear a mask (such as an inexpensive painter’s mask) when mowing the lawn if you are allergic to grass pollen or mold. Avoid mowing and being around freshly cut grass if possible.
- Wear a mask when gardening, as flowers and some weeds release pollen and can cause allergy symptoms.
- Avoid raking leaves or working with hay or mulch if you are allergic to mold.
- After being outdoors, take a shower, wash your hair, and change your clothes to remove pollen that may have collected in your clothes and hair.
- To protect yourself from insect stings, wear shoes, long pants and sleeves, and do not wear scented deodorants, perfumes, shampoos, or hair products.
- If you have severe allergies and your doctor has prescribed anepinephrine injector kits, carry it with you at all times.
- Don’t hang clothes or linens out to dry, as pollen and molds may collect in them.
- Pack your medicines with you in your carry-on bag.
- Bring an extra supply of medicines in case you need them.
Staying in a Hotel
- Ask for a nonsmoking room.
- Remove feather pillows and ask for synthetic, nonallergenic pillows — or bring your own plastic pillow cover from home.
- If possible, keep the vent on the room air conditioner shut.
- Eat in smoke-free restaurants.
- For food allergies, avoid the foods that cause your allergy symptoms by carefully reading ingredient labels and asking about the food preparation methods when dining out. Choose fresh foods rather than prepared or processed foods. If you have severe reactions, such as anaphylaxis, ask your doctor about an epinephrine injection kit that you can carry at all times. Ask how many kits you should have and where they should be kept.