Under Attack: Hidden Allergy Triggers

Last Editorial Review: 3/21/2005

Mold, mites, and pet dander lurk where you'd never suspect.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Sneezing and wheezing can hit at the most unlikely times. You know you've got an allergy, but sudden attacks can be very mysterious. Richard Weber, MD, an allergy specialist with the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, reveals a few clues.

Allergy Attack: Stuffed Animals in Hot Water

Kapok (a tree native to tropical America, Africa, and the East Indies) has long been used to stuff pillows and pooh bears. The seed pods are used as stuffing for pillows, sleeping bags, and furniture upholstery. Like bird feathers and down, kapok was among allergens suspected in causing allergic reactions in both adults and kids. However, recent studies have shown that the stuffing isn't the problem -- it's the dust mites and mold.

"Turns out, even the foam rubber, synthetic stuff gets just as contaminated as down feathers," Weber tells WebMD. "In any humid climate, there's a very good chance that pillows and toys -- no matter what they're stuffed with -- will get contaminated with dust mites and mold."

Rather than tossing out those beloved items, try washing them, he suggests. Hot water (130 degrees Fahrenheit) and drying in a hot drier kills dust mites. Adding a few drops of eucalyptus oil to the water also helps kill mites.

Allergy Attack: Pet Dander but No Pets?

Whether you've got pets or not, animal dander is likely lurking in your car or home. "You expect to find cat and dog dander where there are pets. But a number of studies have found significant levels in cars -- and in homes -- that have never had pets," Weber says.

In one recent study, researchers vacuumed the bus and taxi seats all over one city in Brazil. "When you look for dander, you find it," says Weber. "People with pets are carrying animal dander on their clothes, and deposit it wherever they sit. Movie theaters, planes, it's pervasive. The levels they deposit are high enough to trigger an allergic reaction. Half a dozen studies all over globe have looked at this issue ? the story's the same all over."

The best way to fight allergies from animal dander is to remove the pet from the home and avoid any contact. However if that's not possible, avoid or reduce contact with the animal.

When a thunderstorm rolls through, prepare for an allergy attack. Why? The winds stir up both mold spores and tiny particles released by pollen grains. It starts while the sun is still shining, says Weber. "It has to do with updrafts that often precede thunderstorms. They cause mold spore counts to go up astronomically, 100 times higher than normal."

As the storm passes through, winds also disrupt the grass pollen grains on the ground, causing them to release tiny particles -- particles that are 1,000 times smaller than the pollen grains, says Weber. "The particles don't show up on any pollen count. But a wave of cold air will sweep the stuff off the ground ? blow it just high enough to hit people in the face." Because the particles are so tiny, they are inhaled deeply into the lungs causing serious problems, he explains.

One thunderstorm can cause "a double-whammy before the storm rolls through, then afterward," Weber says. "Those fine particles can be very irritating."

Allergy Attack: Those Awful Roaches

Roaches do not discriminate. They thrive in the poorest and best of neighborhoods, Weber says. "Some parts of the country simply have more, like the Southeast where roaches are a fact of life," he tells WebMD. Restaurants and schools have roaches. The pests can even enter your home via your new couch -- an item that has been warehoused.

Roaches can be very difficult to eradicate, says Weber. Roach traps and baits, as well as insect sprays, can help. But spraying should occur only when no one is at home. Before you or your child returns home after spraying, make sure that your home has been aired out for a couple of hours.

Also, it's important to clean up the area where roaches have been found. They thrive in humid and water environments, so fixing leaks helps eliminate them. Dead roaches and their feces are often the cause of allergies -- not the roaches themselves. The American Academy of Asthma and Immunology suggests sealing foods in tight-lidded containers, vacuuming and sweeping after meals, and taking out the garbage frequently to avoid roaches.

Published March 21, 2005.

SOURCES: Richard Weber, MD, an allergy specialist with the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. WebMD Medical Information from The Cleveland Clinic: "Allergies and Asthma." WebMD Live Events Transcript: "Toxic Mold and More: Battling Indoor Allergens."

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