When my daughters were young, I used to read to them every night, and one of their favorite books was titled “The Mysterious Shrinking House.” It’s an intriguing tale of a young girl who is transported into the world of her toy dollhouse and charged with freeing the people entrapped in a mythical miniature village.
With the covid-19 pandemic raging and “shelter-in-place” in full swing, the name of that book has been on my mind. If you’re like me, you are getting very familiar with the inside of your home—perhaps more familiar than you ever wanted to be. And if your ranks have been expanded by a college kid or two who have come back home to roost, you may feel that your house is indeed shrinking!
Hopefully you’re dealing with your quarters—cramped as they may be—with happy spirits. And when they’re not so happy, may I recommend Netflix, jigsaw puzzles, and locking yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes as therapeutic distractions?
What you may not be able to deal with so easily, however, are allergies—specifically, indoor allergies. The most common indoor allergens include house dust, pet dander, and mold. (We’ll look at each of those in-depth later in the article.) All of these allergens can make people miserable in winter when they are spending more time indoors, but people tend to be less affected by them when they start to get out more in spring and summer. Unfortunately, covid-19 put a wrench in that, and many people are left to suffer due to indoor allergens longer than usual as they comply with stay-at-home regulations.
The Misguided Immune System
You may be wondering why your body can’t peacefully co-exist with house dust or Oliver the cat. After all, aren’t they harmless? The answer is yes (unless, of course, Oliver has a temper!) But from a strictly chemical perspective, these triggers in and of themselves are harmless, and if your body knew what was best, it would just ignore them.
Unfortunately, the immune system can be prone to confusion. As such, it perceives these allergens to be in the same class as germs and marshals all of its resources against them. That “marshaling” process involves releasing chemicals (such as histamine) into the body. These chemicals wreak havoc on the body’s tissues, causing nasal congestion, wheezing, asthma, eczema, hives, conjunctivitis (red, itchy eyes), and more.
Top Indoor Allergens
Let’s take a look at the indoor allergens that are most likely to trigger immune system responses.
- Dust mites – Dust mites are microscopic creatures whose waste and body parts contribute to house dust. They have eight legs like spiders (arthropods) and feed on people’s dead skin flakes, which tend to amass on upholstered furniture, carpets, and bedding. Every day, an adult may shed up to 1.5 grams of skin—enough to feed 1 million dust mites. These mites thrive in warm temperatures (above 70°) and high humidity and can cause allergies in the form of allergic rhinitis, eczema, and asthma.
- Cockroaches – Cockroach body parts and waste are another major component of house dust that can trigger allergies.
- Pets – You may have heard of hypo-allergenic cats and dogs, which often have short hair or no hair at all. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not pets’ hair that causes allergies; it’s the protein found in their dander (dead skin flakes), saliva and urine. People’s allergies are frequently triggered by these proteins, resulting in a runny or stuffed up nose, sneezing, red and itchy eyes, wheezing, coughing, and even full-blown asthma.
- Mold – Mold needs both high humidity and a surface on which to grow. Mold can grow in areas of the home that are prone to moisture and are not well-ventilated, such as bathrooms, basements and kitchens. Mold spores are airborne, and when you inhale them, your body may react to them with allergic rhinitis, sinus problems, coughing, wheezing and asthma.
How do you know if you are reacting to indoor allergens?
While many people have seasonal pollen allergies that flare in spring and fall, allergies triggered by indoor sources tend to linger year-round. If you find your allergies persisting beyond the standard pollen seasons, you may be allergic to something in your home. The best thing to do is to talk to an allergy doctor. They can assess your symptoms, perform a physical exam and, if appropriate, administer an allergy test to help determine what your body is allergic to.
Can I avoid indoor allergens?
Full avoidance is impossible, but there are things you can do to minimize indoor allergens in your home. Both dust and mold thrive in moist conditions, so use a dehumidifier to keep your home humidity between 30 and 50 percent.
For dust, wash your bedding and vacuum frequently. You can use HEPA air filters and invest in allergen-minimizing bedding. Some people debate the effectiveness of the bedding, but others say that it can effectively keep dust mites from colonizing in your mattress or pillow.
For animal allergies, keep your pets out of your bedroom and off of upholstered furniture. Bathe your pet regularly. For dust mites and pets, you might even consider replacing your carpet with solid flooring because carpet tends to hang onto pet dander and dust.
Can I treat my allergies to dust, mold, and pets?
While avoidance may be helpful for some people, it is not enough for many. That’s where allergy treatment comes in. Your treatment course will likely be determined by the duration and severity of your allergies. If you only have short bursts of allergies, medication (such as antihistamines or corticosteroids) may be enough to keep them in check.
My general rule has always been that if a patient suffers from allergies for more than four months of the year or if their symptoms are particularly severe for a shorter duration, they may be a candidate for allergy immunotherapy—whether in the form of subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots) or sublingual immunotherapy (under-the-tongue allergy drops). Both are effective, but allergy drops are more convenient, as they have a higher safety profile and can be taken at home. Both allergy shots and allergy drops have been shown to be helpful for cat and dog allergies as well as allergies to mold and dust.
With spring here and pollens raging outside, the last thing you want to do is be miserable with allergies inside as well, so make sure to talk to your doctor. And if your doctor’s office is closed, see if they have virtual appointment options so that you can press forward with the treatment you need.