As summer approaches, allergy and asthma sufferers must adapt to seasonal changes.
Amy Bates, owner of Merry Maids, says there are several things you can do while cleaning to help reduce allergens in your home, including vacuuming blinds and curtains.
Allergy sufferers, you’re not alone. More than 50 million people suffer from allergies in the U.S., according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Many of those also suffer from asthma.
At Allergy Clinic of Tulsa, generally 75-80 percent of asthma patients also have nasal allergies. Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma and occurs when allergens trigger asthma symptoms.
“Allergens cause an allergic reaction because the immune system responds by releasing a substance called immunoglobulin E (IgE),” says Dr. Ahmad Mourad with Allergy Clinic of Tulsa. “Too much IgE can trigger inflammation of the airways in your lungs, causing difficulty of breathing.”
What’s an allergen?
Allergens fall into two categories: seasonal and year-round.
Seasonal allergens include tree pollens (spring), grass pollens (summer) and weed pollens (fall). Perennial allergens include dust mites, mold and animal dander.
“Allergens can enter the body by being inhaled, swallowed, touched or injected,” Mourad says. “Pollens, molds, dust mites, cockroaches and animal danders are typical inhaled allergens.”
Injection allergen examples include insect stings, while latex is a common skin allergen.
“Simply put: The pollen (an allergen) triggers a complicated chain reaction that results in the release of histamine, which causes the sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose, itchy throat and nasal congestion,” says Dr. W.P. Sawyer II with Eastern Oklahoma Ear, Nose and Throat.
In addition to those symptoms, one might develop a rash or hives or feel ill or tired after coming into contact with an allergen.
Severe allergic reactions cause different symptoms, according to Mourad, including face, eye or tongue swelling, chest pain or tightness, wheezing, difficulty breathing and swallowing and dizziness.
“The most severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis,” which is a whole-body reaction, he says. “It is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.”
The most common anaphylactic reactions are to foods, insect stings, medications and latex. Symptoms include skin rash, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing and shock, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Emergency treatment includes the use of an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen).
“Epinephrine is a ‘rescue drug’ because it opens the airways and raises blood pressure,” Mourad says. “If you witness someone with a severe reaction, you can help by laying the person flat on their back, elevating their legs and covering them with a blanket.”
Why allergies and asthma develop
Allergies sometimes develop or intensify due to exposure. For example, if you have never suffered from allergies but move to a new part of the country with more pollen present or new allergens, you could become susceptible.
Mild allergies can intensify as you get older if there are changes to the internal structure of your nose, such as if your nasal septum becomes deviated from an injury.
“Some other things impact your nasal health and those then impact your allergies and make it worse,” Sawyer says. “Your allergies themselves aren’t worse — just your nasal condition is worse because of these other things.”
Genetics can play a part, as well as what Mourad calls the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that highly clean environments can cause immune systems to overreact to ordinary things like pet dander and peanuts.
Asthma can be triggered by allergens or environmental, non-allergenic causes. Mourad says allergenic triggers include pollen, mold, dust mites, cockroaches, animals and occasionally food and chemicals. Non-allergenic triggers are air irritants such as smoke, air pollutants and, occasionally, strong emotional stress.
When the body is having an asthma attack, airways become inflamed, and the muscles around the airways tighten.
“This makes it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs, causing symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and/or chest tightness,” Mourad says. “Mild episodes may last only a few minutes; more severe ones can last from hours to days.”
Mourad adds that mild asthma attacks can resolve on their own or can require medication like a quick-acting inhaler, and severe attacks can be shorted with the right treatment.
For allergies, Sawyer suggests starting with an over-the-counter medication, which can minimize symptoms.
“If they are just intermittent symptoms, the best thing to use is an antihistamine,” Sawyer says. “If they are more continuous symptoms, the best thing to use is a nasal steroid. You can use a combination of the two if you need to.”
If an over-the-counter treatment doesn’t help, see a doctor who can work with you to create an allergy treatment and management plan.
There also are home therapies to try. Take a shower at night instead of in the morning. Sawyer says it will wash off the pollen you’ve collected in your hair during the day.
Saltwater nasal spray is another option.
“Using a saltwater nasal spray several times a day physically removes pollens,” Sawyer says. “It’s also an natural decongestant, which seems to help.”
Once you know the cause of your allergy, try to avoid it. Mourad suggests staying in an air-conditioned environment during peak hay fever season and eliminating dust mites and animal dander from the home.
For asthma, work with your physician to track symptoms and adjust your medications, if needed. In some cases, physicians might suggest preventative medications to take regularly.
“These preventative medications treat the airway inflammation that causes asthma signs and symptoms and reduce the risk of asthma flare-ups,” Mourad says.
If you have an attack, stay calm and take prescribed medicines. Severe asthma attacks can first be treated with quick-acting medication, but Mourad also suggests going to the doctor or urgent care immediately. Also, see a doctor for same-day treatment if you continue to wheeze and feel breathless after a treatment.
Clean your home to fend off allergies and asthma
If you’re sneezing inside your home, allergy triggers might be present. Some of them might be coming inside the house with you.
“Sixty percent of household dust can be reduced by removing shoes before entering your home,” says Amy Bates, owner of Merry Maids. “Leaving your shoes outside is a really great way to minimize the dust, germs and everything else.”
If taking off shoes isn’t an option, another way to help reduce dust is to place dirt-hugging and dust-catching mats outside and inside the door, so it catches what’s coming in on your shoes or your pet’s feet.
Keeping the bedroom dust-free is important. “We spend 30 percent of our life in bed,” Bates says. “Many of us are allergic to dust and dust mites, and it can impact the quality of life and sleep. It isn’t easy to sleep with a stuffy nose or asthma.” Bates suggests avoiding under-the-bed storage.
“If you do store things under the bed, make sure they’re tightly sealed containers you can roll out so you can dust off the tops and vacuum that area,” she says.
Keep in mind mold and mildew, which can be allergy triggers. Try running the bathroom exhaust fan for 15 minutes after a shower.
“The exhaust fan is there to pull the humidity and moisture out of your bathroom, so it’ll help cut down on mold and mildew,” Bates says.
Grooming dogs regularly is important because they can bring pollen inside.
“Keeping them properly groomed and brushed will help minimize what’s coming in,” Bates says. “Pets are often overlooked unless you’re allergic to them.”
Cleaning tips and tricks
There are other simple things you can do to help minimize allergens in the home (and workplace, too), according to Bates.
1. Change air filters regularly. A good rule of thumb is whether you can see light through it. If not, the filter needs to be replaced.
2. At home, wash bedding weekly in hot water, which will kill dust mites. If your pillows are washable, wash those, too.
3. Vacuum your mattress while your sheets are in the wash. Bates suggests using a special spray to kill bacteria and freshen your mattress. Mix one to two cups of vodka or rubbing alcohol with an essential oil like eucalyptus or clove (20-30 drops). This can be used on a traditional or foam mattress. Now spray away! Additionally, you can use baking soda to freshen up foam mattresses, but you must vacuum it up after. She emphasizes that you should only mist — and never soak — either kind of mattress.
4. Don’t forget your ceiling fan. Wrap a pillowcase around the blades to catch the dust. If your fan is very dusty, put the pillowcase on the blade and wipe, collecting the dust in the pillowcase. Bates says this is a much cleaner technique than dusting. Make sure to take the pillowcase outside to shake out the dust, and then launder it as usual, using hot water. Or use a feather duster on the blades before you vacuum.
5. Don’t neglect windowsills, blinds and lampshades.
6. Change your vacuum bag outside regularly and consider a HEPA filtration vacuum. When vacuuming, occasionally flip back your area rug and vacuum its underside.
7. Vacuum upholstery, and use a dust mop under your furniture if you have hardwood floors.