The sad answer is probably “not very.” With upwards of 200 indoor contaminants in the average household, most homes are a hotbed of potential allergens. Even if you’re not allergic, you may feel some of the effects. But if you do have allergies, there’s little question - you’re bound to suffer to some degree. One way to minimize your misery is to know the risks you face in every room.
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ATTIC: Mold and dust are the probable culprits here. Mold can grow on old, musty items typically found in the attic - those unworn clothing or clothing items, long-forgotten books, furniture and other discarded items. If your attic is dusty, it’s a haven for dust mites, especially if it contains old carpeting, bedding or upholstered furniture. Old toys and tires can contain latex, which can cause various skin problems, irritate the eyes and nose, and trigger asthma attacks. Mold is less likely to grow if your attic is well ventilated.
BEDROOM: Dust mites live in bedding, on furniture and in carpeting. Make every effort to keep pets off the bed and out of the bedroom. The dander of cats, in particular, can stick to walls and fabrics, setting off pet allergies. If you have pollen allergy, do not keep your laundry hamper in your bedroom. Pollen on clothing that has been worn outdoors can enter your bedroom air when the clothing is jostled.
NURSERY: Stuffed animals are a haven for dust mites, while some plastic and rubber toys can trigger contact dermatitis and other skin problems. Encase pillows, mattresses and box springs in allergen-proof materials to limit mite exposure, and wash sheets at least once a week in hot water. Wash blankets regularly, too. It is not clear whether avoidance of contact between an infant and pets is an important strategy for families with allergy. Several studies have raised the possibility that early, daily exposure to cats and dogs may actually guard against the development of certain allergies later in childhood. Certainly, if other members of the family are allergic to animal dander, pets should not be in the house.
LIVING ROOM: Clean and vacuum frequently to minimize dust mites in upholstered furniture, curtains, rugs and even picture frames. Research has shown that sofa surfaces in the majority of U.S. households have a coating of dog and cat dander, even in homes with no pets. This is probably carried into the house on clothing. Wash window moldings with warm soapy water, especially during the summer, to prevent mold from growing. And before bringing new furniture into the house, let it air outside. Glues and finishes used in its manufacture do not provoke allergy, but they can worsen irritation of the respiratory system and skin in people who are having allergy symptoms. Keep humidity below 50 percent with a dehumidifier to prevent dust-mite and mold allergies.
BATHROOM: Wear gloves when handling cleansers and detergents. It is helpful to wash tile on floors and walls at least weekly to prevent mold growth. Shower curtains may be washed periodically in hot water with detergent and bleach. Notice if any cosmetics, deodorants or even toothpastes cause skin problems. Many contain ingredients known to trigger allergic reactions. If they do, replace them with products labeled hypoallergenic.
KITCHEN: Keep trash cans clean and sealed to prevent mold and cockroach allergies. Store food in sealed glass, plastic, or metal containers. Clean the refrigerator drip pan to prevent mold. If pets stay indoors, an uncarpeted kitchen is a good place for them. Wash floors regularly to remove dander, especially if you have a cat.
BASEMENT: Mold, cockroaches and dust mites are potential problems, since all thrive in moist conditions. Caulk around pipes to deny roaches access and repair leaky pipes to limit moisture. Remove old newspapers, cardboard boxes and grocery bags, because cockroaches can live in them.
Revision date: June 18, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD