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Controlling Dust and Dander in Your Home

Allergen avoidance begins at home. Although avoiding or limiting exposure to allergens and irritants outside — as well as at work, school, or other indoor locations — is important, avoidance therapy can actually have the most beneficial impact in your home.

On average, most of us spend one-third of our lives in the bedroom — much of that time in bed. Because we spend such a large amount of time in our bedrooms, your bedroom is the most important single area in your home.

In and around your home, the most common and important sources of allergens that you should focus on when allergy-proofing are

  • Dust and dust mites
  • Pets
  • Mold
  • Pollen

Busting the dust

House dust is one of the most prevalent allergy triggers in any home, and unfortunately, it's everywhere. Think of house dust as one of life's inevitabilities — along with death and taxes. House dust can trigger allergy symptoms either as an irritant to sensitized target organs (such as your eyes, nose, or lungs) or as a result of the specific allergens often contained in house dust.

Studies show that the average six-room home in the United States collects 40 pounds of dust each year. Note, however, that dust is not dirt, nor is it an indication of poor housekeeping. House dust is a normal breakdown product of fibers found in pillows, drapes, clothes, linens, and other furnishings at home, work, school, or even in your car.

Allergy-proofing your bedroom and home likely involves dealing with dust mites more than with any other allergy trigger, because these microscopic creatures produce the single largest component of house dust that triggers allergies. Eighty percent of patients with allergies test positive for sensitivity to the dust mite allergen. The dust mite allergen is also the most significant allergic trigger of asthma attacks.

Although you've probably never seen them, dust mites are a fact of life — they're bound to follow almost anyplace you settle. These tiny spider relatives live in house dust where they feed on human skin scales (hence the scientific name dermatophagoides, meaning skin-eater), which we constantly shed (up to 1.5 grams per day — that's a lot of dust mite chow). The fecal matter (or waste, to put it more delicately) that they produce, at the average rate of 20 particles per day, is the most prevalent form of house dust allergens.

Although eradication of these natural inhabitants of your home is virtually impossible — the females lay 20 to 50 eggs every three weeks — you can take practical and effective steps to minimize exposure to dust mite allergens.

Taking the following measures often results in a significant decrease in allergic symptoms and medication requirements for patients with allergies or asthma.

  • Beds: Encase all pillows, mattresses, and box springs in special allergen-impermeable encasings, and mount all beds on bed frames. Wash all bed linens in hot water (at least 130 degrees) every two weeks. Use pillows, blankets, quilts, and bedspreads made only of synthetic materials. Avoid down- (feather) filled comforters and pillows.
  • Climate control: Don't locate your bedroom in a humid area such as the basement. Likewise, use an air conditioner or dehumidifier to keep the humidity in your home below 50 percent. You may want to use a humidity gauge to monitor humidity levels.
  • Carpets and drapes: If possible, go for the bare look in your home — remove carpeting and thick rugs. Bare surfaces such as hard wood, linoleum, or tile are inhospitable to dust mites and are also much easier to clean, thereby minimizing dust buildup. If you can't remove your carpeting and rugs, treat them with products that inactivate dust mite allergens. Washable curtains or window shades rather than heavy drapery or blinds also are wise alternatives.
  • Housekeeping: Vacuum thoroughly, at least once a week, with a HEPA or ULPA vacuum cleaner. If you have allergies, wear a dust mask when you clean or engage in any activity that stirs up dust. Also, consider cleaning your furniture with a tannic acid solution.
  • Ventilation: Use HEPA air cleaners to keep the indoor air throughout your home as pure as possible. Cover any heating vents with special vent filters to clean the air before it enters your rooms.
  • Decorations and furnishings: Use furniture made of wood, vinyl, plastic, and leather throughout your home instead of furniture made of upholstery. Likewise, make your bedroom as uncluttered and wipeable as possible. Avoid shelves, pennants, posters, photos or pictures, heavy cushions, and other dust collectors. Limit the clothes, books, and other personal objects in your bedroom to the essentials, and make sure that you shut the ones you keep in closets or drawers when not in use.
    If your child has allergies or asthma, don't make his or her bedroom a stuffed animal zoo — try to limit those types of toys to a few machine-washable ones. Keep your child's stuffed animals and toys in the closet or in a closed chest, container, or drawer when not in use.

Regulating pet dander

Pets are cherished members of many households. However, dander (skin flakes) from these animals is a significant source of allergy triggers for many people. All warm-blooded household pets, regardless of hair length, produce proteins in their dander and saliva that can trigger allergies. Dead skin cells in their dander can even serve as a food supply for dust mites. Cat dander residue can linger at significant exposure levels in carpets for up to 20 weeks and in mattresses for years, even after you remove the animal.

If finding a new home for your pet is not likely, try the following measures:

  • Keep your pet outdoors whenever possible.
  • If keeping your pet outdoors isn't possible, by all means, keep the pet out of the allergy patient's bedroom.
  • Make sure that anyone who touches your pet washes his or her hands before contacting the patient or entering the patient's bedroom.
  • Washing your pet with water once a week may remove surface allergens and possibly reduce the amount of dander that can stick to other household members' clothes and body (thereby reaching the patient's bedroom). Although it may take some training (and a few scratch marks), even cats can get used to baths.
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