Do itchy eyes, sniffles and a scratchy throat sound familiar? Many of us know the symptoms of allergies: An estimated 40 percent of the population is sensitized to allergens, meaning that the immune system has a strong response when certain substances are inhaled from our environment. Common allergens include pollen, mold, pet dander and dust mites—tiny bugs that feast on shed flakes of skin and are a common cause of year-round allergies and asthma. Allergic reactions range from mild coldlike symptoms to headaches to an aggravation of asthma symptoms. Sufferers do not always recognize allergens as the cause of their symptoms.
Even indoors, allergies often worsen as spring approaches. At this time of year, certain pollen counts rise and humidity levels typically increase, encouraging the growth of mold and dust mites. While some of this is out of our control, we can take steps to reduce the level of allergens in our homes, keeping ourselves and our families feeling better and breathing easier. These four cleaning and maintenance tactics can reduce our exposure to allergens and provide a powerful boost to overall health.
Time required: 1 to 1½ hours every one to two weeks
Most adults spend six to 12 hours each day in the bedroom, and children may spend even more time there. Studies show that more dust mites live in the bedroom than anywhere else in the home. Use this cleaning regimen weekly or biweekly to reduce the prevalence of pet dander, pollen and dust mites. Wash bedding and curtains; vacuum upholstered furniture, mattresses and carpets; and dust with a damp cloth. Use a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to capture allergens, and run washable stuffed animals, throw rugs and pillows through the washing machine. Bag unwashable items and put them in the freezer for 24 to 48 hours to kill dust mites.
To further reduce allergens between cleanings, keep humidity levels low to deter dust mite and mold growth, remove shoes before entering the bedroom to avoid tracking chemicals and allergens in from outside, encase pillows and mattresses in zippered dust-proof covers, and keep furry pets out of bedrooms.
Time required: 1 to 3 hours once a year
Search your home top to bottom to identify sources of mold. Common places include bathrooms and basement walls and floors, front-loading washers, and areas around plumbing fixtures and windows. Examine your home’s exterior, looking for rotting roofing materials and siding; ensure that gutters are clear and that water is routed away from the foundation. Inspect mechanical systems for leaks or signs of failure; ensure that dryer vents are properly attached and free of obstructions; and use a flashlight to inspect accessible exhaust vents for furnaces and hot water heaters, as blockages are a common source of indoor moisture and carbon monoxide. Seek out places with high moisture levels, and use your nose to identify hidden sources. Purchase a simple humidity gauge (less than $15 at hardware stores) to determine rooms with elevated humidity levels. Remember, mold can lurk under rugs, behind wallpaper, above ceiling tiles and behind drywall. Exercise caution when exposing potential sources of mold, such as peeling back wallpaper, as spores can be released. Consider wearing an N-95 respirator. If you have limited areas of mold, clean it up using our natural solutions at right. If your home has large areas of mold—particularly dangerous black mold—hire an experienced mold-abatement professional.
Time required: Varies
Allergens become trapped in carpeting over the years, making them difficult to remove. For example, up to 95 percent of dust mites can remain in carpet after vacuuming. The National Academy of Sciences recommends considering carpeting a serious problem with regard to allergens.
Consider removing old wall-to-wall carpeting from rooms with exterior doors or high humidity levels such as basements, bathrooms, laundry rooms and kitchens. Older carpets are likely to harbor significant amounts of dust mites, pollen, chemicals and pet dander (if pets have lived in the home), and carpets in humid areas may contain mold. Exercise extreme caution when removing carpets in homes built before 1978 as lead dust may be released into the home. When removing any carpet, spray it down with a water bottle before removing to keep contaminants from floating into the air. Consider replacing old carpets with area rugs that can be easily cleaned or with hard flooring, such as natural linoleum, ceramic tile, bamboo or hardwood.
Time required: 1 to 4 hours; check annually
The EPA recommends keeping humidity levels below 60 percent in the summer and between 25 and 40 percent during the winter. Consider installing a dehumidifier in the basement or upgrading the bathroom exhaust fan if humidity levels are consistently out of range. Ensure that your bathroom has at least a 50 cubic feet per minute (cfm) exhaust fan if it is less than 100 square feet. Bathrooms that have jetted tubs or are more than 100 square feet need more powerful exhaust fans. Ensure exhaust fans are working properly. If a short piece of toilet paper doesn’t stick to the grill when it is turned on, there is an exhaust issue with the fan. You should run the bathroom fan for 20 minutes after taking a shower to clear humidity adequately and ensure moisture in the fan body or ducting is minimized. Installing a timer can boost effectiveness and energy efficiency, making it easy to run the fan for the proper amount of time without worrying about shutting it off later.
Although bleach is commonly used to kill mold, safer alternatives exist. Try these.
Vinegar: Killing an impressive 82 percent of mold, 99 percent of bacteria and 80 percent of viruses, undiluted white vinegar is a highly effective cleaner. Spray undiluted vinegar onto a surface and leave it for several hours before scrubbing with a brush. To prevent mold growth on moist areas such as shower curtains, spray the area with vinegar and allow it to dry.
Hydrogen Peroxide: If you don’t like the smell of vinegar or don’t have hours to spare, spray hydrogen peroxide on the surface to be cleaned and leave for 10 minutes before scrubbing. For an extra boost, spray on vinegar in addition from a separate spray bottle.
Grapefruit Seed Extract: While effective at killing mold and deodorizing, grapefruit seed extract is a pricier option compared with peroxide or vinegar. Place 10 drops of extract per cup of water in a spray bottle, and shake well before using. Spray and wait before wiping surface, or leave the solution on the
surface without wiping.
For more on getting rid of mold, read the article Break the Mold: Natural Solutions for Toxic Household Mold.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
guide to allergy symptoms
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
resources for managing allergies
Home Ventilating Institute
information on sizing a bathroom exhaust fan
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