Allergies are the result of your immune system going into overdrive. They develop when your immune system overreacts to a normally harmless substance, such as pollen, cat dander or dust. About one in five Americans experience sneezing, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, itchy eyes, hives and rashes, all of which are symptoms of allergies.
How can you tell the difference between a cold and an allergy? Dr. David Lang offers this rule of thumb: if you have nasal symptoms and it feels like a cold, but with more itching and sneezing, and it lasts longer than two weeks, you probably have an allergy.
There is an almost infinite variety of allergies. But most triggers, called allergens, stimulate the immune system through four basic routes: ingestion (eating peanuts or shrimp, for example), injection (like a penicillin shot), absorption through the skin (touching poison ivy) and inhalation (breathing in cat dander). For food and drug allergies, avoidance is the only option. But for inhalant allergy relief, the answer is probably right under your nose, as house dust, pollen, pet dander and mold are the most common triggers. "You can find a little bit of everything in house dust," explains Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills. "Different people are allergic to different things - pieces of cockroach are pretty potent, actually - but the biggest cause of problems is the mite." The mite is an almost microscopic relative of ticks and spiders. But live mites aren't the problem. Instead, people react to the fecal matter that mites expel on carpets, bedding and upholstery. The bodies of dead mites also trigger allergies.
Dust mites have been isolated in dust samples from the five major continents of the world and are often a major allergen for allergy and asthma sufferers. Because dust mites require heat and humidity to survive and can only live at altitudes below 5,000 feet, they are not found in areas of the United States such as Denver, Vail, Santa Fe and Lake Tahoe. The other common trigger, the cockroach, is ubiquitous. "Although most cockroach species live in the tropics, they are also found in North America, especially in homes in large cities," Lang says. Not surprisingly, the cockroach allergen is most abundant in kitchens with food debris. Airborne allergens are difficult to escape. Pollen fills the air in almost all areas with seasonal regularity. Molds thrive in dark, damp places, under carpets, in damp basements, in leaky garages and sheds. And with millions of dogs and cats in America, it's not easy to escape pet dander.
If you're sensitive to any of these allergens - most likely because you inherited the tendency - contact with them will trigger a sneezing, wheezing, itchy reaction. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to minimize these discomforts. The following doctor-tested tips will help you reduce your allergy symptoms and return to easy breathing and dry eyes.
Treat your symptoms
A certain amount of exposure to what bothers you is unavoidable. Allergy shots, which you can get from your doctor, are a great way to ensure that your forays into the outside world are pleasant and painless. But you shouldn't rely on them. Non-sedating over-the-counter antihistamines, available at pharmacies, work wonders on runny noses and itchy red eyes, and are well tolerated. However, according to the Joint Council of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the most effective medication for treating nasal allergies is an intranasal steroid spray, which is available only by prescription.
Air condition your home (and car)
That's probably the most important thing you can do to alleviate pollen problems, and it can help with two other main inhalants: mold and dust mites. The basic idea is to create an oasis of sorts," says Dr. Richard Podell. "You want your home to be a place of refuge, a place you can rely on to get away." Air conditioners help in two ways: They keep humidity low, which discourages dust mites and mold, and they can filter the air as it cools - if you also install an air filter.
But it's the airtightness of the house that has the real advantage, Podell says. If you have the windows open, the inside of the house is essentially the same environment as the outside of the house - full of pollen. If walking outside makes you breathe heavily and sneeze, imagine what it's going to be like to walk through all those pollen clouds at 55 miles per hour. Be sensible and don't forget to use the air conditioner in your car. (Here are some treatment ideas for seasonal allergies).
Install an air filter
By keeping the air in your home clean, you can relieve pollen, mold and pet dander.HEPA (high-energy particulate-arresting) filters are the most effective. When using an air filter in your room, remember to keep the door closed to reduce the overall volume of air the machine is trying to clean. However, air filters are not very helpful against dust mites. Dead dust mites float in the air for only a few minutes before falling out, which is not enough time for the filter to attract them.
Buy a dehumidifier
Keeping the air in your home dry will put an end to dust mite problems. Dust mites don't thrive in low humidity, below about 45 percent, Platts-Mills says. "In general, the drier the air, the better." Remember to drain the water from the unit often and clean it regularly, according to the manufacturer's instructions, to prevent mold. If your dehumidifier is a problem for a child or other person sensitive to dry air, try using a small room humidifier in the bedroom.
Keep the room clean, but not too clean
Allergy sufferers do best when dust and dirt are kept to a minimum. But it's not enough to dust your home with a dry cloth, which only propels allergens into the air. Instead, wipe hard surfaces and floors with a slightly damp cloth. Try not to use aerosol sprays or products containing harsh chemicals or odors that can irritate the airways. In wet areas, use a bleach solution. Bleach kills mold and, unlike other exotic (and potentially dangerous) chemicals, you can get it at the grocery store. Wipe down your bathroom surfaces if necessary. The label on a bottle of bleach suggests cleaning floors, vinyl, tile and the kitchen sink with a solution of 3/4 cup bleach per gallon of water. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then rinse. Use a regular fungicide for tough areas like the basement. Of course, if you use bleach on fabrics, they will lose their color. If you are allergic to house dust, pet dander or another common household allergen, consider hiring someone else to clean the carpet, such as a professional cleaning service or carpet cleaner.
That said, some researchers believe that our overly sanitized Western lifestyle disorients our immune system, throwing it off balance and preventing it from distinguishing friend from foe. In fact, there is growing evidence that a baby's immature immune system can only develop properly when exposed to certain bacteria.
Insulate your pets
The furry friends that occupy American homes can make allergies worse. Cat dander usually causes the most problems, but dogs, birds, rabbits, horses and other furry or furry animals also cause allergic reactions. "One walk a week in a room is enough for a pet to sustain a dander allergy," Podell says. "Unfortunately, no secondary measure can rival the benefit that will come from removing a pet from the home," Lang says. "If a cat or dog is removed from the home, however, clinically relevant levels of pet allergens can persist in 'reservoirs' such as upholstered sofas and chairs, wallpaper and other areas for several months." So be patient. If you can't bear to part with your pet (and most pet owners can't), make your bedroom a safe haven, isolated from the rest of the house and an absolute no-pet territory. Washing a cat or dog frequently has been shown to reduce its allergen content.
Wear a face mask
Wear a mask when doing something that may expose you to a problematic allergen. A simple task like vacuuming can throw huge amounts of dust and contaminants into the air, where they will hang for several minutes, Lang says. Similarly, gardening can expose you to huge amounts of pollen. A small mask that covers your nose and mouth, known professionally as a dust and mist mask, can prevent pollen from reaching your lungs. 3M makes an effective and inexpensive model that can be found at most hardware stores.
Enforce a no-smoking policy
Tobacco smoke is a major irritant not only to the smoker but also to anyone nearby. Smoke can make allergies worse, so if you want to breathe easier, make your home, office and car smoke-free.
Make your bed a dust mite-free zone
Cover your pillows, mattress and box spring with anti-allergen covers. These covers provide a barrier between you and the allergens they contain. Look for a 10-micron woven fabric, which is tight enough to keep dust mite allergens out.
Choose the hot cycle on laundry day
Laundry should be washed in water that is at least 130°F to rid it of dust mites and their waste products. To test your water temperature, turn off the washer once it's full and dip a meat thermometer into the water. (This only works for top-loading machines, of course!) If you're worried about scalding people by setting your water heater to such a high temperature, consider taking your bedding to a professional laundry service that will guarantee the bedding will be washed at a high enough temperature.
Throw out your carpets
Carpets may be pretty, but they are a near-perfect habitat for dust mites and mold. In addition, tightly woven carpets are very effective at attracting and holding pollen and pet dander. Even steam cleaning may not help. "Heat is not enough to kill dust mites," Platts-Mills says. Steam cleaning only makes the floor warmer and wetter, an ideal climate for dust mites and molds.
Buy synthetic pillows
Dust mites love synthetic pillows (Hollofil and Dacron) as much as down and foam ones, but synthetic pillows have one major advantage: You can wash them in hot water and kill dust mites.
Dried flowers, books, stuffed animals and other decorative items collect dust and allergens. So keep knickknacks to a minimum, or get rid of them altogether.
Make at least one room a sanctuary
If you can't afford central air conditioning and don't want to rip the carpet out of every room in your house, there's still hope. Make one room a sanctuary. "Most people spend most of their time at home in the bedroom," Platts-Mills says. Making that one room an allergen-free space can go a long way toward easing your allergy symptoms. This can be accomplished by air conditioning the room in the summer, separating it from the rest of the house (by keeping the door closed), replacing carpets with rugs, storing linens in allergen-proof covers and dusting it.
How did the home become a haven for dust mites?
In the 1940s, American homeowners welcomed the vacuum cleaner. Soon, no housewife could live without one. But the same technology that made our lives easier indirectly contributed to a common medical problem: dust mite allergies. "The vacuum cleaner made carpets more appealing than rugs," says Lang. With central heating, homes tended to stay warm year-round. Add to that well-insulated homes and cold-water washing (thanks to the energy crisis), and you have a perfect environment for dust mites. (Here are 7 ways your home can make you sick).
Don't believe the claims about allergen-free cats.
You may have heard of "allergen-free" cats. Most cost several thousand dollars, but experts say they offer more hype than hope. "I have yet to see quantitative data showing that these animals are free of Fel d 1, the primary cat allergen," cautions Scott P. Commins, MD, PhD. Before purchasing any of these animals, he suggests waiting for solid research indicating that they are indeed allergen-free.
When to seek medical attention
If you have a known allergy and notice any of the following symptoms, you should see your doctor. Pimples that appear in response to exposure to an allergen, also called hives. They may indicate the onset of anaphylactic shock, an allergic reaction severe enough to be fatal. Seek prompt medical attention. Other symptoms that indicate a visit to the doctor include:
Wheezing - a whistling sound when you breathe.
Asthma - chest congestion severe enough to make breathing difficult, often accompanied by wheezing.
An allergy attack that doesn't respond to over-the-counter medications within a week.
"If your allergy symptoms prevent you from doing what you want to do, or if you miss work or school, you should see a doctor," Lang says.