Inside Winter Allergies

When it's cold outside, a cozy home is sublime. But for indoor allergy
sufferers, this comfort can morph into a miserable sneezy nightmare.
Fortunately, there are ways to create a breath-easy home environment.

By Patrick Dougherty

From November, 2005

As the first frost blankets the cold ground, seasonal allergy sufferers rejoice. For those sniffly souls, their winter wonderland is a frozen landscape devoid of the pollen-spewing grass, weeds and leaves that brought them allergy misery through the spring, summer and fall. Winter does indeed offer reprieve for some, but for a considerable portion of the 40 million Americans who struggle with allergic reactions, the sun’s declining rays foreshadow a holiday nightmare more horrifying than coal in the stocking—indoor allergies.

Just as we shut out the blustery winds, nippy temperatures and snowfalls of the winter months, we shut ourselves in with a host of indoor allergens, or substances that trigger allergic reactions.

Fortunately, with a few simple steps, you can modify your winter home environment to minimize indoor allergens and maximize your comfort through the holidays.

Indoor allergens include cockroach droppings, dust mite body parts and droppings (yikes!), molds, animal dander and house dust, which is a mélange of all the above and more. “We’re exposed to these allergens year-round,” says Dr. Mark Pettus, author of The Savvy Patient: The Ultimate Advocate for Quality Health Care (Capital Cares), “but they tend to get worse in the winter months, when our windows are closed and there is little fresh air circulating through the house.” The good news? While outdoor seasonal allergens are beyond our control, we have a tremendous influence over indoor allergens—enough to eliminate indoor allergy symptoms altogether.

Mistaken Identity

The first step in overcoming indoor allergies is identifying which allergens trigger your symptoms. Visiting an allergist or immunologist for allergy tests can isolate the culprit, helping you to focus your home environment modification where it is needed most. Although all the aforementioned sneeze-inducers are forces to be reckoned with, the most significant and ubiquitous indoor allergens come from dust mites and pets.

“Indoor allergens like animal dander become airborne, usually in the form of microscopic dust particles,” Pettus says. “When you’re cleaning house and a ray of light comes through the curtains, it’s amazing to see this vast array of particles floating around. It is these airborne particles that we ultimately breathe into our nasal passages or get in our eyes. The body’s response is to recognize these particles as foreign. It becomes overaggressive.” As the body misidentifies harmless foreign substances as dangerous invaders, it releases the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE) to fight them off. IgE spurs the immune cells into action; they unleash the histamines that cause allergy symptoms.

These symptoms can range from annoying, such as a sneezing fit, to life-threatening, such as anaphylactic shock. “Pet dander makes me feel like I have sand in my eyes,” explains Gina Jurlando, age 12. “They get very dried out and I have to keep blinking, but it doesn’t exactly work. Dust mite [allergens] make my nose run. It keeps running and running, like a river, and no matter how much I blow it, it just doesn’t stop.” Other indoor allergy symptoms include rashes, hives, shortness of breath, sinus pain, watery eyes and itchy or sore throat.

The immune system’s reaction to harmless allergens is a case of mistaken identity. When functioning properly, this security force is invaluable, ridding the body of potentially harmful parasites and other foreign substances. But the “false alarms” of allergic reactions take their toll on both body and mind, provoking symptoms that leave sufferers like Jurlando feeling “tired and aggravated.”

Snug As a Bug In a Rug

Cozy and content in our homes, we do not realize that we have sealed ourselves indoors with millions of microscopic organisms—dust mites. These tiny, eight-legged spider relatives feed upon the dead skin cells of humans and pets, along with other organic materials they find in dust. Dust mites typically congregate in mattresses, pillows, upholstery, stuffed animals, carpeting and other areas where dead skin cells are readily available.

Though the thought of millions of microscopic creatures burrowing into one’s couch and bedding may be unnerving, living dust mites are completely harmless. They do not carry disease, bite or make their homes on humans—but their droppings and body parts are potent indoor allergens.
Dust mites thrive in warm, humid, dark conditions. The bedroom, in particular, is a dust mite’s paradise; the average bedroom contains millions of them. Toasty-warm bedding, rich with skin cells, attracts hordes of the teeny beasts. Even more disturbing, the average two-year-old pillow is 10% heavier than when it was purchased due to the accumulation of dust mites and their droppings over time.

When we crawl into bed on a chilly winter night, fluff the pillow and pull the comforter snugly under our chins for a peaceful night’s slumber, we are actually stirring up dust mite allergens. As we sleep, each toss and turn, and each flop on the pillow releases more particles at close range, where they are easily inhaled. These allergens, which are relatively heavy, do not remain airborne for long—but they don’t have to stay airborne to trigger reactions that can ruin a winter night’s sleep.

Because it has the greatest concentration of dust mites, the bedroom is the best place to focus efforts on eradicating the pesky allergens they produce. First, clean thoroughly to eradicate all traces of dust. If you can’t entice a non-allergic friend or family member to clean for you, be sure to wear a dust mask. Try to maximize the wipable surfaces in your bedroom, as this helps you easily maintain your dust-free environment. Eliminate dust collectors such as stuffed animals, books, decorative pillows, rugs and carpets.

Perhaps most importantly, give your bed an allergen overhaul. Special mattress, boxspring and pillow encasings are available that create a barrier between your body and the millions of dust mite allergens that lurk in your bedding. Trade in your down comforter for washable blankets and launder them weekly in hot water, along with mattress and pillow encasings and all other bedding. Consider running a dehumidifier in your bedroom. Dust mites, unequipped to find or drink water, absorb moisture from humidity through their joints. When humidity falls below 50%, the little creatures start dying off.

Anything For Our Furry Friends

Studies show that 15% of the American population is allergic to cats or dogs. But for many, the pleasure of canine and feline companionship far outweighs the sniffles and sneezes of pet allergies. In winter months, however, pet allergies are exacerbated to nearly unbearable levels. Just like their owners, pets prefer the warm indoors to freezing temperatures outside. Today’s energy-efficient homes are well-sealed against the winter chill—trapping pet allergens as expeditiously as they contain heat.

Pet saliva, urine, feathers and droppings can all trigger allergic reactions. But the most significant pet allergen is animal dander, or the dead skin scales of pets. Unlike dust mite allergens, animal dander is light enough to float on air for extended periods of time. In addition, animal dander is sticky; it easily adheres to walls, lampshades, drapes and other exposed surfaces. The light, mobile nature of animal dander, combined with the closed-in quality of winter living, form a recipe for allergy disaster. Those with forced-air heating are at even greater risk for pet allergy misery. As forced hot air warms the room, it also stirs dander and circulates it through the home.

Air cleaners, vacuums, and furnace filters can significantly reduce a home’s animal dander levels and provide relief. However, because dander particles can be extremely small, standard air cleaners, vacuums and filters are insufficient. In fact, a standard vacuum could worsen dander levels by sucking it in and spewing it out, filling the air with allergens. HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) technology filters 99.97% of particles with a size of 0.3 microns (that’s really tiny, by the way), and is a must-have for all air cleaners, vacuums and filters used to control pet dander.

To reduce animal dander in your home, you need to elevate your vacuuming skills to a maniacal level. Animal dander gets everywhere, so running the vacuum over the floor is simply not enough. Vacuum walls, upholstery, furniture, drapes and the ceiling—for maximum impact, vacuum everything in sight. Thorough HEPA vacuuming in conjunction with HEPA air cleaners and specialized furnace filters can minimize animal dander in the house, sometimes enough to completely eliminate pet allergy symptoms. However, pets will continue to produce dander, so regular maintenance is necessary. It is advisable, especially during confined winter months, to keep the pets out of the bedroom. No matter how clean your house gets, a pet-free sanctuary room is great to have when allergies manifest.

Tannic acid, a natural product found in tea, coffee and oak bark, neutralizes the allergens in dust mite and animal dander. Treating carpets, upholstery, and other allergy hot spots with tannic acid can help reduce symptoms—just be sure to spot-test before treatment, as tannic acid can stain.
The security of warmth and shelter is an age-old luxury that comforts us right down to the soul. Don’t let allergies ruin your restful surroundings. With a little elbow grease and intelligent supplementation, you too can enjoy your home when it’s freezing outside—without the miseries associated with indoor allergens.

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