Allergy season can be a miserable time for people who suffer from hay fever or other sensitivities. Runny noses, sinus headaches, and itchy eyes can make you feel run down and sick (even if you’re otherwise well). If you’re wondering how to get rid of allergens in your home, there are a few steps you can take to minimize the root causes of allergies.
By doing a few simple things, you’ll be able to breathe a little easier and reduce the dust, dander, dirt, and pollen that trigger allergies.
Photography: Caroline Sharpnack
Why Reduce Allergens in Our Homes?
Many people who don't have strong sensitivities to allergens might wonder what all the fuss is about? Why should we take steps to reduce allergens in our homes?
If you have allergies, you likely already know the answer. Allergies are miserable. Many different sources can trigger them—foods we eat, traces of particles in the air around us, even things we touch. So what are allergies anyway?
Allergies are a reaction that occurs in our immune systems. Most particles and substances we encounter throughout the day don't cause a reaction in our bodies. Some people are more sensitive to certain triggers. For example, some people may have an allergic response to chemical compounds, fragrances, and substances like mold. Other people may not notice any reaction at all.
When we're allergic to a substance, our immune system overreacts and tries to fight the allergen by producing antibodies. Unfortunately, these antibodies cause the physical reactions that we see, like itchiness, runny noses, scratchy throats, trouble breathing, and dermatological responses (rashes).
If you think this sounds similar to an autoimmune response, you're right. Autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack and break down organs in the body. They are also an overreaction of the immune system but use a different type of T-cell. Our body's immune response is protective and positive in most cases. It helps us fend off parasites, bacteria, and viruses, but in the cases of allergies, it's an over-response to an otherwise harmless trigger.
Allergies are ubiquitous, with more than 50 million Americans reporting some allergic response each year. They’re the 6th leading cause of illness in the United States, making them one of the most common health issues, especially amongst kids. A little over 7% of adults and children are diagnosed with hay fever each year. Severe allergic reactions, particularly to food and insect stings, can cause a life-threatening response called anaphylaxis. These responses result in about 30,000 ER visits annually.
While most environmental allergen responses are caused by pollen and other outdoor stimulants, there can be triggers inside our home that can cause allergic reactions. The most common allergens in our homes are pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mold, cockroaches, and cigarettes. While you may not smoke or have a cockroach infestation, pet dander is unavoidable if you have a furry pet. Dust mites and mold are also quite prevalent, even in homes that look and feel extremely clean. Mold can grow in humidity above 50% (a level where many of us keep our homes for comfort in the winter months). Dust mites thrive in environments 65-80 degrees F, which, again, is a common range for a typical home.
If you're wondering how to get rid of allergens in your home, you don't need to say goodbye to your pets, fight dry air, or keep your home thermostat below 65 degrees. Fortunately, you can fight allergies by maintaining a clean home and taking simple steps to eliminate the triggers in the areas you frequent (like your bedroom).
Here's how to minimize allergens in your home to protect yourself and your family.
1. Choose Safe Materials in Your Home Construction
You can get rid of allergens in your home and control indoor dust and dander by choosing the right materials when you build.
Insulation is one of the critical factors in preventing allergies in your home. The temperature, ventilation, and humidity in your home play a substantial role in your overall health. Buildings that lack the proper insulation often end up causing "sick building syndrome," a condition where people working or living in the space report symptoms such as headaches, lowered immune systems, fatigue, and trouble breathing that can only be tied back to the environmental conditions.
Insulation helps to control and prevent mold and mildew in your home. Now, keep in mind that many types of insulation also release dust (some of which can contain health-hazardous substances), but there are natural, safer options available. Once the insulation has been installed correctly, it will help your home stay at a consistent temperature and humidity.
When you select flooring options for your home, hard surfaces are generally always a better choice for many reasons. We've discussed the problem with that new carpet smell—it indicates the presence of VOCs or volatile organic compounds. These VOCs can cause many health issues and can trigger allergies and asthma.
In addition to the chemical treatments used in carpet manufacturing, the carpet also tends to trap allergens, dust, and dirt. Mites feed off dead skin cells and dirt particles that are constantly being shed in your home. As a result, carpet makes an excellent spot for mites to breed and feed.
Hardwood, tile, and even concrete can be allergen-safer options. You can control indoor dust and dander by sweeping and moping often. There are also many natural flooring options like bamboo, stone, clay, and marble that are beautiful, healthy, and less triggering for allergy sufferers. If you must choose carpet, pick a low-pile option and clean the carpet frequently. Look for a vacuum with a HEPA filter to prevent allergens from dispersing into the air when you clean.
Photography: Caroline Sharpnack
Windows and Doors
Windows let in beautiful, healthy, natural light. They increase the ventilation in your home, and the sunlight helps your home feel brighter, healthier, and cleaner. I’m a huge fan of windows and recommend installing as many as fit with your home’s design.
If you’re building a new home, be sure to invest in high-quality windows and doors. If you already own your home or are renovating, it's worthwhile to make sure your windows and doors are working properly. Leaky windows let in dust, dirt, and debris. While you won’t want to shut out nature entirely, you’ll want to take steps to ensure that your windows are truly closed and sealed when you need to keep pollen out. Clean your windowsills, screens, and doorways frequently as well. A well-placed rug at the threshold can help prevent dirt from tracking into your home.
Photography: Caroline Sharpnack
Your home's HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) is one of the primary areas to address if you want to get rid of allergens in your home. With the innovations on the market today, you can install a silent air filtration system that will clear many allergens out of your home without any effort or worry on your part.
Your HVAC system regulates your home’s temperature and humidity too. Many systems now can sense when humidity or temperature need to be adjusted to keep the air consistent. Smart HVAC systems can be a worthwhile investment for peace of mind and comfort.
No matter what type of HVAC system you have in your home, you'll need to check the air filters and schedule regular upkeep to maintain air quality. I like to keep a reminder in my phone for when to replace air filters. Routine maintenance will help detect problems early on before they lead to allergens, dust, and dirt.
Photography: Jennifer Lavelle
2. Select Safer Home Décor
Any time you’re renovating or redecorating your home, ensure that the design materials you choose don’t exacerbate allergy symptoms.
As I’ve shared before, there can be many hidden health hazards in your home décor—paint, furniture, and textiles can bring in some dangerous chemicals and potentially put your family at risk. Paint itself is a primary contributor to VOCs in your house. Paints can also include other chemicals like glycol and mercury.
With the array of natural, VOC-free paint options on the market today, there's no limit to your choices for healthier wall coverings. You can pick from almost any color or finish you like and feel safer knowing that your paint won't cause allergies, asthma, eye, nose, or throat irritation.
When you furnish your home, keep in mind that allergens often accumulate on upholstery. Of course, you’ll want some textiles to bring warmth, style, and comfort to your house. But if you or your family suffer from regular allergies, choose materials that are less hospitable to dust mites and other allergen triggers.
Wood, metal, leather, tile, and other harder surfaces are easier to clean, dust, and maintain. Leather couches and chairs are typically more allergen-friendly too. When you choose window treatments, look for washable natural fabric or roller shades. Avoid VOCs by choosing vintage furniture that’s had time off-gas before it enters your home.
Photography: Jennifer Lavelle
3. Filter Your Air & Water
Protect your family from many allergens by installing an air purification system with your HVAC or as a stand-alone device. Air purifiers feature HEPA filters that remove up to 99.98% of the allergens and pollutants in your home. If you suffer from allergies, a good air purifier is a must-have.
A water purifier is also a wise investment. Even if you live in a brand-new home, the water from city municipalities can contain heavy metals and other contaminants. A simple filter can be installed in your home water system to clean your water, remove hard minerals, and ensure you aren’t drinking or bathing in unsafe water.
4. Stop Allergens at the Door
Many allergens “walk” right into your house with guests and family members, especially if they wear their shoes when they enter your home. Shoes are unbelievably dirty, by some studies even dirtier than a toilet seat. Encourage everyone to remove footwear when they enter the house.
For extra protection, put a washable rug or doormat both inside and outside the threshold. Not only will it serve as a reminder for guests to wipe their feet when they walk in, but it can also provide a barrier against dust and pollen that can blow in from outside.
5. Rethink Your Bed
Choose natural linens for your bed for a healthier night’s sleep. If you are sensitive to allergies, you can look for dust-mite-proof covers (with a tight weave) that can keep mites and their droppings from getting in your bedding. Wash your sheets and blankets weekly in hot water.
If you have pets and allergies, consider making your bedroom a pet-free zone. Even if you aren’t allergic to dander, many pets pick up pollen and dust when they go outside. Dust from the litterbox can also get tracked into your bed. It may be better for your sleep if your pets have their own space.
6. Vacuum and Dust Regularly
Vacuuming and dusting may need to be a regular part of your routine if you want to eliminate allergens in your home. A vacuum with a HEPA filter traps minuscule particles and keeps them from floating around in the air of your home.
A dampened dust cloth can pick up dust better than a dry cloth. Of course, you should use care when dusting furniture that may be sensitive to moisture, but even if you slightly dampen the duster, it will help. Be sure to dust off areas near the windows, doors, and vents. These spots can get particularly dirty.
7. Keep Your Home Clear of Clutter
If you want to get rid of allergens, keep your home clutter-free. Don’t allow items to pile up in corners or on the surfaces of your home. Dust, dirt, and debris can accumulate in any spot, but when there’s clutter in your home, it’s harder to clean it up.
If you catch yourself eating in your home office or snacking in front of the TV, it may be wise to reconsider. Food particles can of course attract bugs, which can cause more allergies. You may also want to be mindful of any leaks or spots around your home where dampness accumulates (fish tanks, pet dishes, plant trays). These spots can be a perfect place for mold and mildew to thrive.
Knowing how to get rid of allergens in your home requires a little research and extra effort, but most of the adjustments aren't terribly time-consuming. Little actions add up, and you'll find that eliminating allergy triggers in your home makes you and your family feel much healthier and more comfortable.
How do you combat allergies? Do you find that you have indoor allergies all year round, or are they tied to the seasons? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.