Cleaning the house is one of those necessary adulthood must-dos that sits somewhere near filing taxes on the fun scale. (Unless you’re an accountant or a cleaning devotee, in which case, spill your secrets.)
And it’s even more essential if you have allergies, because it’s an integral part of “environmental control,” says John James, a Colorado-based allergist and immunologist and a spokesman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. “This is something that’s very important in allergy treatment,” he says. It’s “the first step, then medical treatments, like doing antihistamines and nasal sprays and such. And then the third step is doing allergy shots or immunotherapy.”
Some of the most common allergens you’d find in your home include pet dander, dust mites and mold spores. Typical reactions are similar to the symptoms of hay fever, James says. (Think nasal drainage, sinus pressure, headaches, itchy eyes and fatigue.) In some cases, they can also cause allergic asthma, with chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Although it’s impossible to eradicate all allergens in your home, cleaning will help mitigate and reduce your exposure. And if you have allergies, you might want to consider wearing an N95 mask while cleaning and leaving your home for about an hour after you finish, because you’ll have stirred up some of the allergens.
It’s not the dust you’re allergic to; it’s the dust mites that live within said dust. Ninety percent of your home’s dust consists of dead skin cells, which dust mites eat, says Janna Tuck, a Santa Fe, New Mexico, allergist and a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
To minimize exposure, use dust-mite covers for your pillows, mattress, box spring and duvets. Mites can settle into the cloth and filling of your bed, and the covers create a barrier between you and the allergens. Tuck recommends washing and changing your sheets at least once a week. You don’t need to wash them in hot water, but dry them on high heat to kill the mites. And replace your pillows annually, she says, because they collect dead skin cells over time: “If you have a 20-year-old feather pillow, it’s disgusting how much of that weight of the pillow is not feathers anymore,” Tuck says.
You don’t need to use a pesticide, such as an acaricide spray, to get rid of mites, James says; wiping surfaces with a damp cloth once or twice a week should suffice. That includes surfaces in rooms you don’t typically frequent, such as a basement, storage closet or formal living room. And wipe down your headboard. (If you have an upholstered headboard, use a handheld vacuum.) It’s also helpful to reduce clutter, because piles of clothes or toys can gather dust.
Use a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to clean floors, carpets, rugs and any other upholstered items, such as furniture or drapery, at least once a week, Tuck says. Allergens are “protein particles, and they’re very small,” she says. “So unless you’re using a very good filtering system on your vacuum, you’re just moving those particles around.” Empty the vacuum canister each time you use it; otherwise, you’ll just put dirt back into the house.
Tuck also recommends selecting air filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of nine or higher and changing them every few months, as well as using a dehumidifier, because dust mites thrive in high humidity.
People who say they’re allergic to dogs and cats are often allergic to the protein found in the animal’s dander, which collects in its fur or hair. (You can also be allergic to the proteins in pet saliva, urine and feces.)
Not having pets is the easiest way to combat a pet dander allergy, James says. But let’s be real: We love our pets. Instead, try keeping the animal out of your bedroom, he says, and limiting your pet’s access to just a few rooms, so you can contain the dander.
Many of the dust-removal techniques also work for pet dander: Wash and change your sheets and vacuum weekly, wipe surfaces once or twice a week, and reduce clutter. Wash your pet’s bed at least once a month, and dry it on high heat. (You can wash it more often if you have a bed that’s easy to launder. James recommends getting one with a removable cover.) Bathing your pet frequently could also help, James says — but consult with your veterinarian to ensure that doing so won’t irritate the animal’s skin.
The proteins in pet allergens are lighter than those associated with dust or mold, Tuck says, so they’re more likely to be airborne. “That’s why, if you have a dog and somebody’s allergic and they walk into your house, within a few minutes they’re like, ‘Do you have a dog?’ and they’re starting to have symptoms,” she says. Pet dander particles are small, so using an air purifier in a contained space could also help reduce symptoms, Tuck says.
The good news: “There’s exceptionally more mold outside your house than is inside your house,” Tuck says. “Your house is your haven if you’re mold allergic.”
But if you have an allergic response to mold spores, you’ll want to be more cautious. Fortunately, preventing mold doesn’t require too much work. “I don’t recommend patients doing anything special for mold other than just keeping [things] dry, and don’t have high humidity, high moisture or water damage,” says Steven Cole, an allergist in Dallas.
Pay attention to basements, showers and tubs, kitchens, windowsills, laundry rooms, garages with refrigerators or freezers, and the space under the sink. Regularly check these areas for standing water, damp sections or leaking faucets and pipes. (And if you keep veggies in your fridge, clean the drawers often, Tuck says.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping your home’s humidity level between 30% and 50%. (A dehumidifier can help.)
Also check inside your washing machine. If it smells odd, that means it’s time to clean it, Tuck says. You can use a special cleaner, or you can put bleach in the dispenser and run an empty cycle with hot water. And pay attention to your houseplants. If you overwater them, mold may start to grow on the soil’s top layer. In this case, take the plant outside and repot it.
Clean bathrooms weekly, and, if you have a fan, always run it after showering. Use a solution of bleach (10%) and water (90%) to remove mold from a bathtub, Tuck says. Those with allergies should take special care, though, when using bleach, because it can cause a cough and congestion, as well as asthmatic reactions. “Test it out in a larger, ventilated area,” Tuck says. “If number one, it works well for you, meaning it cleans well, and number two, you do well with it, it doesn’t cause you symptoms, then great. But it needs to do both of those things.”
And although it’s fine to scrub away a tiny patch of mold, more extensive or structural damage — for instance, mold spread throughout a bathroom wall — requires professional help, because large quantities of mold can affect even those who don’t have allergies.