20 Sneaky Spots Where Allergy Triggers Hide
Hello, sneeze season
Another year, another allergy season. If you suffer from springtime sneezing, itchy eyes, and nasal congestion—all symptoms of allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever—you may be dreading the next few months as trees and flowers bloom and release pollen, one of the most common allergens in the United States.
You also probably know some tricks for minimizing your exposure to airborne irritants, like keeping your home vacuumed and dusted, and staying indoors on high-pollen days. But those strategies may not be as effective as you think: Pollen and other allergy triggers may be hiding in places in and around your home you’d never realize. To truly clear the air, consider these other potential contributors to your allergy symptoms.
When pollen is in the air, any outer layer of clothing you wear outdoors can collect these tiny particles. That’s why it’s a good idea to brush off jackets or sweatshirts before heading back indoors. If you’ve been walking through a park or field with tall grass or blooming plants, give your pants a good shake-off too.
“The pollens that causes most people problems aren’t the heavy, large particles—it’s the smaller, invisible ones that are light enough to become airborne,” says Keith Young, MD, an allergist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Translation: Even if you don’t see allergens on your clothing, they might still be there. If you’re particularly sensitive, put potentially contaminated items directly into the washer rather than letting them lay around or wearing them again.
Because heavy pollens fall to the ground and we don’t typically breathe them in, you may not have to worry so much about the yellow powder you’re tracking in on your shoes. But your kicks can bring in other potential allergens as well, including dust and dirt that can make its way into your carpets.
To keep these particles outdoors where they belong, leave shoes by the door. The same goes for anything else that’s visibly dirty, like gardening gloves, tools, or outdoor sports equipment.
Curtains, shades, and blinds
You probably remember to wash your sheets and vacuum your floors regularly, but how often do you give your window dressings a good cleaning? Curtains and other window coverings may initially block allergens from blowing into your home, says Bryan Martin, MD, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology—but that just means they’re collecting those particles themselves.
“When your windows are open and your curtains are blowing around, they’re acting like a filter and a collection surface,” says Dr. Martin. “But the more pollen and allergens they collect, the more it’s going to be a potential irritant for you.” Wash curtains at least seasonally, and replace horizontal blinds with easy-to-clean roll-up shades.
Bedding and pillows
Leaving your bedroom windows open on breezy springtime days can bring pollen into your bed. But even if you seal up your sleeping quarters on high-pollen days, there are other ways it can become contaminated: If you come in from the outside and immediately plop down on your sheets, for example, or if you toss your bag or jacket onto your comforter.
But pollen isn’t your biggest worry when it comes to allergens in bed. Dust mites are much more common in mattresses, blankets, and pillows, says Dr. Young, and can cause sneezing, coughing, and itching year-round. These microscopic critters exist in all homes—no matter how clean you are or how much time you spend dusting. Your best defense against them is to use allergen-proof fabric or plastic covers on your mattress and pillows, and to wash your bedding weekly in hot water.
Just as dust mites can get into your pillows and blankets, they’re also living in your kids’ stuffed animals and plush toys. That can be a real health hazard, since dust mites are a common cause of asthma in children.
“We tell people who are allergic to dust mites to remove stuffed animals from the bedroom or at least from the bed,” says Dr. Martin. You can also reduce your family’s exposure by buying machine-washable toys and laundering them regularly. (Run them through the clothes dryer, too, rather than air-drying them.) Items that can’t be washed can be put in the freezer for 24 hours to kill dust mites.
Yes, you can be allergic to your pet’s dander—but if you suddenly begin sneezing or wheezing around your four-legged friend, don’t automatically assume it’s a reaction to the animal itself. That’s because your dog or outdoor cat can also track in additional allergens, like dust and pollen.
“During pollen season they run and roll around in the grass, and they pick up these particles on their coats,” says Dr. Martin. To cut down on transmission, wipe them down with a damp washcloth after they’ve spent time outside. Keeping your pet out of your bed and off of upholstered furniture can help keep allergens away, too.
Fans and air conditioners
If you’ve ever looked closely at a box fan in a window, you’ve probably noticed how dirty it can get; that’s because it’s capturing a lot of those airborne particles that can contribute to allergies. What you can’t see? It’s also increasing the flow of these particles into your house. Wipe down blades and cages regularly, and don’t run window fans during days or times when pollen is high.
Be sure to take care of air conditioners, too: Both window and central AC units have filters to block the influx of pollen and other allergens, but these filters need to be changed as directed in order for them to do their job.