If you find yourself sniffling, sneezing, coughing or itching, consider blaming your surroundings. Environmental allergies are the substances in our environment to which you become allergic, including pollen. Another term, biological contaminants, refers to microorganisms that infiltrate our indoor environments, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. In our homes, these kinds of contaminants manifest as animal dander and cat saliva, house dust mites, cockroaches, insects, pollen, mold and mildew. Worst of all is standing water, water-damaged materials or wet surfaces: The moisture serves as a breeding ground for molds, mildews, bacteria, mites and insects.
Environmental Allergies - What You Need to Know
Prolonged exposure to biological pollutants can cause sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy and fevers. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean you have to suffer without recourse. The key is to avoid or eliminate airborne allergens as best you can, which will help you get back to feeling better.
Here are seven of the most common environmental allergies and what to do about them.
Allergens can be pollens, which are released into the air by trees, grasses and weeds. Though technically a seasonal allergy rather than an environmental one, which are found year-round, pollen is one of the most common allergens. If your symptoms get exacerbated in the spring and late fall, the culprit is likely the airborne allergen behind hay fever. The good news is with the pandemic, one of the side benefits of mask wearing is that masks seem to help with allergies, especially pollen.
Dust mites are microscopic, insect-like pests that generate allergens that can trigger allergic reactions and asthma in many people. As icky as it sounds, thousands of dust mites can live in the bedding, mattresses, upholstered furniture, carpets or curtains in your home, feeding on the dead human skin cells found in dust. Although some experts say that dust mite levels are at their highest in summer, when humidity levels soar, other sources say house dust mites, animal dander and cockroach droppings intensify in winter, when there is less ventilation.
is a type of fungus that grows in moisture, indoors and out. mold spores constantly floating in the air can trigger reactions, but the problem worsens when these spores attach to a wet surface and mold begins to grow. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Mold allergy symptoms vary from person to person and range from mild to severe. You may have year-round symptoms or symptoms that flare up only during certain times of the year.”
Pet dander is composed of microscopic flecks of skin shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds and other animals with fur or feathers. These tiny bits of skin can cause reactions in people who are allergic to these triggers in particular.
Cockroaches, which are a global issue, contain a protein that is an allergen for many people and can trigger an asthmatic response. Weirdly, even dead cockroaches can cause allergic reactions. These pests adapt easily to a variety of environments but prefer warm conditions found most often in buildings. They are mainly active at night and will run away from light.
Tobacco products (especially cigarettes) are filled with many toxic ingredients and irritating chemicals, which can cause some people to suffer from an allergic reaction. Studies have shown a clear link between secondhand smoke and asthma in children as well as adults. There is also the problem of thirdhand smoke, the residue from tobacco smoke. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, “when a cigarette is smoked, chemicals in the smoke stick to surfaces and dust for months after the smoke is gone. The chemicals in the residue then react to other pollutants in the air, like ozone, to create harmful particles you can easily inhale.”
When its wildfire season, which climate change has made more pronounced, the smoke fires can generate pose a significant health threat. Smoke contains billions of particulates suspended in the air that can drift thousands of miles. This means even if you live far from the flames, your health can still be impacted. These particulates make breathing difficult for everyone but can worsen symptoms for those living with asthma, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The good news is that for most people the symptoms that result from exposure to wildfire smoke are temporary.
Tips to limit allergens
In general, the best way to reduce allergens is to have consistent house hygiene. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how much you obsess about cleanliness there is really no way to completely eliminate allergens in your home. But regular cleaning mitigates indoor allergens such as molds, pollen, pet dander, dust mites, and cockroach droppings. What’s more, some of the chemicals in cleaning products can also make allergies worse.
Caveat: Household cleaning and personal care products
People with allergies—whether it’s sneezing, skin rashes or breathing problems—can react to some of the chemicals in cleaning products. These chemicals may not cause a true allergic reaction, but they can be extremely irritating. For example, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology
found when bleach combines with a common citrus ingredient called limonene, it creates higher concentrations of toxic emissions.
Conventional air fresheners, which emanate their own potent bouquet of toxins, are another source of environmental irritants. In short, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in some cleaning products may cause serious eye and nose irritation and can possibly stimulate as asthma attack.
Best practices for a low allergen environment
Reduce dust-collecting clutter
Vacuum (several times a week) carpeted floors with a double-bag or HEPA filter vacuum
Regularly wash blankets and throw rugs
Wash all bed linens
in hot water every week
Keep counter surfaces clean and dry
Don’t leave food out and store food in sealed containers
These simple tips keep dust to a minimum, prevent molds from growing, and help control cockroaches and other pests. Together, they can help minimize your allergy symptoms.