Allergy Sufferers, Listen Up

Last Editorial Review: 2/4/2005

Control Dust Mites, Pet Dander, Pollen at Home

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Allergies can wreak havoc on the best of us. Grass and tree pollen irritate some 36 million people every year. Dust mites and pet dander plague us, too. Want to make your home an itch- and sneeze-free zone? The experts offer their insights.

During the tree pollen season, "there will be a sequence of little 'mini seasons' throughout the spring, as various trees pollinate," reports Jay Portnoy, MD, chief of allergy, asthma & immunology at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

Spring rains may wash pollen from the air, but it's temporary relief, Portnoy tells WebMD. "Pollen counts actually spike prior to thunderstorms."

Indeed, allergy-proofing your home -- getting rid of outdoor and indoor allergens -- isn't easy, but it's well worth the effort. "It's the first and most important step in dealing with allergies, far better than any medication or shots," says Aidan Long, MD, head allergist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Once pollen gets inside your house, it becomes a perennial problem, Portnoy says. His advice:

  • Resist the temptation to open windows. Most importantly, keep bedroom and car windows closed, since you spend lots of time in those small spaces.
  • Vacuum with high-efficiency bags or HEPA filters. "Inefficient bags just spread the allergens around," says Portnoy.

But if dust mites and pet dander are your nemeses, vacuuming may not be a great idea, says Long. "Stirring up dust mites may be exactly the wrong thing to do. It's only the airborne allergens that are the big problem. When they're settled, they're not a problem."

Here's what to do:

  • Regular dusting with a damp cloth is best. "Relegate the vacuuming to someone else," says Long.
  • Put special air filters in your HVAC system to trap airborne allergens.
  • Get rid of "dust mite reservoirs" in your bedroom -- eliminate feather pillows and comforters. Bedrooms are a real breeding ground for dust mites, he tells WebMD. "Dust mites live on dead skin cells we all shed, and on animal danders."
  • Wash sheets and pillowcases in very hot water -- over 130 degrees -- or dry them in a hot dryer. Dust mites can live in environments up to 130 degrees, says Long.
  • Try eucalyptus oil-based solutions when washing bed sheets and clothes to kill dust mites.
  • Don't dry sheets outside, since that brings more allergens inside.
  • Cover mattresses, box springs, and pillows with allergen-proof casings, which can be purchased at any linen store.
  • Put portable air purifiers with HEPA filters in the bedroom.
  • Think twice before running a humidifier, since humidity encourages the reproduction of dust mites. If you must use one, clean it regularly to prevent mold growth.

As for pets, pushing Fluffy or Fido outdoors won't really solve the problem. "It's going to take months to get rid of the dander, even after the animal is outside," says Long.

Alternative suggestion: Keep the pet's bedding well-washed, and put filters on vents to cut down on fur blowing through the house. Also, try keeping the pet out of the bedroom. Dust mites love pet dander.

Published April 17, 2003.

Medically updated Jan. 27, 2005.

SOURCES: Jay Portnoy, MD, chief of allergy, asthma & immunology, Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo. Aidan Long, MD, director of allergy, Massachusetts General Hospital. WebMD Medical News: "Shake Out the Dog, Vacuum the Cat: It's Time for Spring Cleaning."

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