Sonja White has been dealing with spring seasonal allergies since she was a child. But she says her symptoms have never been as bad — or as relentless — as they are since she started working from home in February of last year.
She’s even taken to Twitter to express her frustration.
“I was always taking allergy medicine, but it’s never been to the point where I was questioning, ‘Am I able to actually work,’ or ‘Am I able to actually move,’ or ‘Am I able to sleep throughout the night?’” White tells Yahoo Life. “And as of the past year, it’s just been something that’s been slowly showing up. And this year it’s showing up the most.”
White, an executive business partner in the tech industry, is among the one in four Americans now working remotely as social distancing measures imposed during the coronavirus pandemic force people to spend more time cooped up in their homes. And she’s not the only one who has noticed a difference in allergy symptoms.
“On a community level, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has hundreds of thousands of registered members and social media followers,” Kenneth Mendez, president and CEO of AAFA, tells Yahoo Life. “We are seeing and hearing from people noticing a difference in exposure to possible triggers within their home environments while spending more time indoors. One big example is animal dander. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to spend 24/7 with our pets – but are certainly noticing a difference with increased exposure.”
White says this is the first time she’s spent all year at home in Washington, D.C., instead of traveling regularly for work. It has meant more time with her dog, Apollo, who spends much of the day on the couch behind her desk. While White jokes that Apollo has become her “working buddy,” she also suspects he may be responsible for some of her extra allergy suffering.
But for many, pets aren’t the only culprit. Here are four things in your home that you may want to look at more closely if your allergies are out of control — and what you can do about it.
1. Your bed
Beds are prime real estate for dust mites — those tiny, microscopic pests that feed off of human skin cells found in dust.
“Often the bedroom is where dust mites can thrive — the pillows, mattresses, plush covers, duvets, anything that causes dust or dust mites to survive and flourish,” Dr. Clifford Bassett, a clinical assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and founder and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of NY, tells Yahoo Life.
And if you’re getting eight hours of sleep at night, that’s a third of your day spent in what Bassett calls “the home allergy hot spot.”
Even the cleanest of homes can have dust mites; in fact most U.S. homes — over 84 percent — have some detectable levels of the tiny creatures in their bed. And since dust mites tend to cling to particles that are too heavy to stay airborne for long, Dr. Mark Corbett, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, tells Yahoo Life that fancy air filtration systems won’t offer much protection. Instead, he says allergy-sufferers should focus on addressing surfaces.
“Things such as ductwork cleaning that people spend thousands of dollars on and really super expensive air filters for the furnace really don’t make a huge difference,” Corbett explains. “It’s fine to do that. I don’t think it hurts anything. But your bang for your buck as far as measures to improve your allergies in the home would be getting those nice zippered coverings to go over the mattress and pillows that are allergy-proof.”
2. Your floors and upholstered items
Another area Corbett says may be worth spending money on is replacing your carpets.
“A lot of it’s going to depend on the flooring,” Corbett says of indoor allergies. “Carpets are just one of the worst things for allergies, because it holds a lot of dust mites.”
Like mattresses and pillows, soft surfaces such as carpets, heavy drapery, curtains and cloth furniture can become dust mite magnets. Those materials are more difficult to clean, which also makes them a perfect place for other allergens like pet dander to accumulate.
Bassett says furnishing your home with easy to clean surfaces like wood, leather or vinyl can help keep indoor allergens at bay.
And if replacing carpeted flooring isn’t an option, Corbett says to be sure to vacuum regularly several times a week.
3. Your pet
67 percent of U.S. households own a pet, according to 2019-2020 data from the American Pet Products Association, and Bassett says pet ownership is one of the strongest predictors of your “home allergy burden.”
“I think a lot of them are blaming it on their animals,” Corbett observes of his own patients. “Before, they would go to work, come home, maybe take them for a walk and not really deal with them. Now the animals are really becoming entrenched, like sitting by their work station, and they’re getting more exposure to the animal danders than they were before.”
Dog and cat owners may have to deal not just with animal dander, but also with the outdoor allergens that come home with them.
White believes her newfound sensitivity to Apollo may have something to do with the extra pollen he’s carrying around, which she knows she’s sensitive to.
“I think it’s what he collects when we go outside,” White says. “And I think it’s because we don’t give him a bath as much.”
She explains that COVID-19 and working from home has led to more walks, but less trips to the dog park.
“We were giving him baths every two weeks if not more since he was going to the dog park and running around with a bunch of other dogs. But now that that’s not a place we go to, we’re like ‘Okay, let’s wash him once a month or whenever he starts to smell really bad.’ So he’s just walking around with a whole bunch of dander on him and things from outside.”
To reduce allergens, Corbett suggests washing pets regularly and keeping dogs groomed to prevent their hair from getting too long.
And unlike with dust mites, this is one allergy instance where air filtration may be helpful.
“The animal allergen — cat even moreso than dog — it’s in the air,” Bassett explains, “and that’s why I feel in certain situations a HEPA air filter, either central air filtration or a portable HEPA air filter, can reduce indoor levels of pet dander.”
4. Your air quality
Air quality plays an important role in how prevalent allergens are in your home — but not for the reason you might think. While clean air is certainly important, especially to eliminate triggers like cigarette smoke that can exacerbate allergy symptoms, it’s how humid that air is that really makes a big difference in determining whether allergens are able to flourish in the first place.
Humidity creates prime conditions for mildew and mold to thrive; dust mites, which absorb moisture from the air, also rely on humid conditions to survive. And while humidity is especially an issue in warmer climates and during those moist summer months, it can also be a problem in colder weather when people try to compensate for dry winter air by creating some humidity indoors.
“This time of the year in many places people are using humidifiers. So if you use a room humidifier it can raise indoor moisture to well over 50 percent, which can increase the growth of molds and mildew as well as the dust mites,” Bassett explains.
Specific rooms in your house may be worth giving extra attention to. Basements tend to be a bit damp, so Bassett says a dehumidifier may help prevent mold growth in that part of the house.
“The bathroom’s a big area where you may want to run an exhaust fan, because you may have mildew,” Bassett adds. “And you want to use EPA registered mildew cleaners or natural alternative products so that you don’t have to then spray aerosolized things that get into your eyes and lungs.”
While it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what in your home is causing allergies to flare up, there are some online tools that can help.
AAFA provides a virtual, interactive Healthy Home tour that helps identify and reduce allergy and asthma triggers.
ACAAI also hosts an online tool called HOME (Home Allergy Management For Everyone) that offers room-by-room tips on managing allergies.
And remember that a few basic steps can go a long way.
“You don’t need to sanitize the house every day,” Corbett says.
“You want to keep a clean house, but you don’t want to go nuts about it.”