For a tree-pollen allergy sufferer like me, spring is torture. Flowering trees are my kryptonite, and during peak bloom it feels like pollen stokes a six-week permasneeze from which there's no reprieve until the end of June. (And since 2018's Fourth National Climate Assessment suggests that increasing carbon dioxide means an earlier, longer pollen season and higher levels of airborne allergens, it might last even longer in the future.)
I'm far from alone in my sneezing. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19.9 million Americans reported being diagnosed with hay fever in the preceding 12 months. The World Allergy Organization says 400 million people worldwide get allergic rhinitis, which includes illnesses caused by indoor and outdoor airborne allergens.
What to do if you're suffering? Immunotherapy – getting shots that can help desensitise your immune system to an allergen – can help over time, but if you're not ready for needle treatment, you can take a few other steps to minimise allergens' effects inside the house. We talked to allergists to get their best tips for minimising the effects of the most common outdoor and indoor allergens when you're at home, from pet dander to dust mites.
Clear the air
For people who suffer from outdoor allergies to ragweed or grass, the best solution is to stay indoors, especially in the morning when pollen counts are highest, and to seal the clean air in. "Central air conditioning is best because they can keep windows closed and that prevents some of the pollen from coming in," said Dr. Paul V. Williams, clinical professor of paediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Monitor pollen counts and avoid extensive outdoor activity when the pollen counts are high."
Making sure your heating, ventilation or air conditioning system's filter is clean, and replacing it regularly, can help too. Wirecutter recommends choosing filters with a MERV rating in the 8 to 13 range; these filters remove 90 percent or more of smaller particles like those of pollen and smoke.
A standalone air purifier can help with airborne allergens such as mould and dander, according to Dr. Purvi Parikh, allergist and immunologist, and spokesperson for the Allergy and Asthma Network. Williams also suggests using a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter in the bedroom. Wirecutter recommends an air purifier that can circulate air at least four times per hour for the room size it's rated for and can run quietly while you sleep.
In damp regions, a dehumidifier can help reduce the moisture below 50 percent as what Williams called a "second-line measure" against the kind of humidity that mould and dust mites prefer (as one 2001 study found). If you are concerned about the possibility of mould, Dr. Neil Gershman, an allergist and immunologist and fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, recommends hiring a mould inspector to take air samples both inside and outside the house. "If you get 1000 spores of Alternaria in the kitchen, but it's 1000 spores outside, it means the house is not the problem," said Gershman,.
If your scourge is year-round indoor allergens – say, pet dander or dust mites – do the opposite and open your windows to circulate clean air in.
Clean your bedroom
In a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology of dust collected from the bedrooms of 7000 households in 2005–2006, 74 percent had three to six of eight measured allergens present. It pays to be vigilant about cleaning the room you sleep in: "Think of the bedroom as the place you want to do the most aggressive environmental control because you're in that room a third of your life," said Gershman. Mattress protectors for both your mattress and box spring, as well as pillow protectors, are woven tightly enough to keep dust mites from taking up residence in your bedding. Although a 2008 meta-review of 54 studies did not find strong enough evidence to recommend physical encasements to reduce asthma, the allergists we spoke to all recommended their use.
Whether you suffer from year-round indoor allergies or seasonal outdoor allergies, it's important to vacuum regularly to pick up allergens that are heavy enough to fall on the floor. Remove carpet and clutter so you have fewer surfaces to vacuum. Washing clothes and bedding weekly in hot water will help wash dander away and kill dust mites.
If you're allergic to the pollen outside, rinse yourself at the end of the day before you climb into bed. "We recommend showers at night before going to bed to get pollen off their hair so it doesn't get deposited on the pillow and get breathed in all night," said Williams.
Although the hygiene hypothesis posits that our oversanitised world is causing an increase in allergies, it's not a good excuse to stop cleaning the house. "That's only helpful before you develop allergies. Once you have allergies, it's not a good idea because if you don't keep your house clean, you'll have a lot of problems, " said Parikh.
If you have pet allergies
There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic cat or dog, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, and short-haired pets are no less likely to cause a reaction than long-haired pets. The first piece of advice Gershman gives to a family with pet allergies is to remove the pet from the house, but many people don't heed it. "People would rather get rid of their allergist than their animal," he said.
If you can't bear to live without your pet, the allergists we spoke to suggested keeping the pet out of the bedroom at minimum, washing the pet regularly, and using an air purifier with a HEPA filter or equivalent HVAC filter to remove airborne particles.
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The American Lung Association says that two times as many people report cat allergies as they do dog allergies, even though a higher number of homes keep dogs as pets. "The allergen from cats is a smaller particle and it tends to be airborne for longer periods of time and can circulate around the house," said Williams. He explained that allergens can be found in the saliva and oil glands of a cat, which means that even washing the cat (if you can manage to do it) doesn't provide lasting results.
If you are taking over-the-counter medications and your allergies get worse or if you have any breathing difficulties, Parikh recommends seeing a physician. "People can get asthma from allergies and that can be very dangerous if it's left untreated," she said.
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