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Attacking Allergens: Getting Rid of Them at the Source, and Other Strategies

If you're tired of putting up with allergy symptoms, the best strategy for taking back control of your health is attacking allergens before they attack you. To get the most out of your efforts, you'll need to know which allergens adversely affect you and how to manage each one.

The Chicago area's springtime pollen isn't the only allergy trigger to consider. Dust, dust mites, pet allergens and mold spores are all common causes of coughing, sneezing and itchy eyes. Taking steps to reduce the amount of various allergens produced in your home and to purify your air will help you breathe easier.

Dealing With Dust

No matter how clean you keep your home, dust is unavoidable. Most of the particles that make up household dust won't cause illness, but they can irritate your respiratory tract. Sources of dust include:

  • Natural textile items – A common source of dust is furniture and bedding that contain natural fibers, such as cotton, wool and down. Brand new items are frequently to blame, but older items also produce an increasing amount of dust as the fibers break down.
  • Biological contaminants – As unappealing as it may sound, household dust often contains dead skin cells from people and pets, dust mites, cockroach debris, particles of dried saliva and mold spores. Certain proteins and toxins in these particles trigger an allergic reaction in people sensitive to them.
  • Household products – More easily controlled contributors to dust include powdered laundry and dishwasher detergents, cosmetics, and aerosols such as air fresheners. Smoking tobacco indoors also adds to the dust load.

While it's impossible to make your home 100 percent free of dust and other respiratory irritants, there are steps you can take to minimize the dust and dust mites

Make dusting easier – Bare walls and floors and uncluttered surfaces collect little dust and are easy to clean when they do get dusty. If bare floors aren't your thing, use throw rugs you can wash frequently.

Protect your bedding – To keep mites out, enclose your pillows, mattress, and box spring in zippered allergen-proof cases. Once a week, wash your bedding and uncovered pillows in water of at least 130 degrees.

Clean often – Dusting and vacuuming once or twice a week is one of the simplest methods of attacking allergens. Use a microfiber cloth or wet rag to pick up dust. Feather dusters only spread dust around. Poorly designed vacuums also can spread dust, so consider investing in a vacuum and other cleaning equipment certified as Asthma & Allergy Friendly by Allergy Standards Limited. Otherwise, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Control indoor humidity – Dust mites thrive when the indoor humidity rises above 50 percent. If you have humidity problems, repair any dripping faucets, roof leaks and leaky pipes that may be contributing to excess moisture in your home. If necessary, consider installing a whole-house dehumidifier.

Upgrade your HVAC air filter -- Those cheap fiberglass filters keep debris out of your air ducts, but they don't improve your indoor air quality. For cleaner air, you'll need a filter with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of at least 6. Better yet, choose an extended-media filter with a MERV of between 7 to 10.

Taming Pet Allergens

Dogs and cats can bring your family a lot of joy, but they also bring plenty of allergens along with them. Pet hair, dander (flakes of dead skin), saliva and urine all contain proteins that, in some individuals, trigger an allergic reaction.

Attacking allergens from pets doesn't have to mean getting rid of your furry friend. In fact, even that may not solve your problem completely. Because allergens stick to surfaces, they can linger long after the pet is gone.

Whether you still have pets or you're trying to reduce allergens from former dog or cat residents, there are several things you can do.

Ban pets from the bedroom – Close your bedroom door to keep your pets out. Pet beds and toys can carry allergens, so remove these from the room. For extra air filtration, place a layer of cheesecloth on the underside of your bedroom's supply air registers.

Keep textiles clean – To remove stuck-on allergens, wash your pet's bedding and toys weekly.

Choose a higher-efficiency filter – To more efficiently remove pet dander from your air, install a mid- to high-efficiency air filter with a MERV of 8 or higher. An electrostatic filter will pick up even more allergens. These filters produce a mild static charge by forcing air across their plastic fibers. The static charge pulls contaminant particles out of the air.

Try a portable air cleaner – In addition to your whole-house air filters and air cleaners, try using a room air cleaner with a HEPA filter in your bedroom and other areas you use frequently. Run the air cleaner for at least four hours a day.

Managing Mold

Attacking allergens in your home is good for everyone, not just those who deal with allergies. Even people who don't experience typical allergy symptoms can suffer adverse health effects from the mycotoxins in mold spores.

Mold outdoors produces tiny reproductive spores that become attached to your clothes, shoes and even your pets, allowing them to hitch a ride into your home. Leaving the windows open also can let these spores in.

Once inside, they blow around in your air, potentially triggering allergy symptoms and illness. Eventually, some of those spores will land in an area that provides enough warmth, moisture and organic material for growth. The corners of bathroom walls and ceilings, behind furniture, the undersides of kitchen cabinets, and A/C indoor coils are all common locations. After getting established, the mold produces more spores right inside your home.

The first step in attacking allergens from mold is to get rid of the mold and the conditions that encourage it. There are a few ways to go about this.

Reduce moisture – Just like dust mites, mold loves humidity. In addition to repairing any water leaks indoors, wipe down your refrigerator and air conditioner drip pans regularly and minimize the number of house plants you keep.

Air seal your home – Many homes have tiny air leaks around the windows, doors, utility line entrances and other places. These leaks let in outdoor air that contains contaminants such as dust, pollen and mold spores. They also let conditioned air escape, reducing your home's energy efficiency. Air sealing with caulk and weatherstripping will give you cleaner air and lower energy bills.

Clean up the yard – Start attacking allergens around your home by removing moldy firewood, stumps and leaf piles from your property.

Keep surfaces clean – In areas likely to develop moisture problems, such as the bathroom and kitchen, either keep the floors bare or use only area rugs and wash them weekly.

To reduce the amount of spores floating around your home, air filtration and purification are your best options. Generally speaking, air filters that capture pet dander are also effective against mold spores. A MERV 8 pleated filter is the minimum you should install. For even better filtration, choose a filter with MERV of 10 or 11.

Filters with efficiencies higher than this can interfere with airflow through your heating and cooling system. That reduces your system's energy efficiency and, at worst, could burn out your motor. If you're considering installing a high-efficiency filter, consult a professional first. He may recommend system modifications to allow installation of a higher-efficiency filter.

UVGI Air Cleaners Keep Mold at Bay

An ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) air cleaner is another option for attacking allergens by killing off mold spores, bacteria, viruses and certain other biological contaminants. In this system, UV lights are installed inside your heating and cooling ducts. The UV rays from the light(s) hit passing particles and damage their DNA, effectively neutralizing them.

UVGI systems have been used since the 1930s to disinfect medical facilities, so they have a long history of success. That said, a UVGI air cleaner's effectiveness and safety depend on both its design and proper installation. A well-designed system includes one or more lights strong enough to damaged microorganisms, but is sealed properly to prevent potentially harmful light leakage.

Keep in mind that while UVGI air cleaners prevent mold spores and other organic particles from reproducing, they don't physically remove them. Mold spores give off small amounts of toxins as they dry up and break down. Because UV lights don't filter out these substances or other non-organic particles, you'll still need a mid- to high-efficiency HVAC filter.

Attacking allergens requires a two-pronged approach that involves both reducing the amount of allergens produced in your home and removing the ones that do get in. With careful cleaning, efficient air filters and the right air cleaners, you can keep the allergens in your home to a minimum and finally get some relief from your allergy symptoms.

A knowledgeable heating and cooling professional can help you find the air quality equipment that will work best for your health needs. To find a professional near you around Chicago, northwest Indiana or southwest Michigan, use our find-a-contractor service at

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