a.k.a. What To Do When Someone In Your Family Has Allergies:
Do you find yourself, your spouse, or your kid(s) constantly sniffling and sneezing? Have you sensed that your indoor air quality at home leaves a bit to be desired? Does it seem as if your familymembers always have colds that never go away? Do you live with someone who constantly gets sinus infections, and/or has asthma? If you answered “yes” to one or more of these, then you may benefit from taking steps to allergy proof your home.
The first time I was tested for allergies, I was 18 and had spent most of high school with a sinus infection. Of the 26 allergens I was skin-tested for in that first round, I had at least a mild reaction to over half! No wonder my sinuses had been so unhappy!
Having now spent over a quarter-century trying to allergy-proof my surroundings, I’ve had plenty of practice. Most of these tips have become second-nature to how I plan out my living space. But if this is a whole new world to you, trust me: it seems like a lot of hassle, but IT’S WORTH IT.
Effective allergy management is not something you can ignore; take it from someone who’s been there. Doing so will only make things worse, can allow your allergic reactions to become worse over time, can lead to more illness and even to allergy-induced asthma, and could even shorten your lifespan. And while it’s not realistic to imagine living in a sterile bubble, even a few steps toward allergy-proofing your home are better than none. These hacks will get you started.
How To Allergy Proof Your Home:
The bedroom is a great place to start, since most people spend about 1/3 of their time there. When I was diagnosed with severe cat and dust mite allergies, my parents’ three cats pretty much lived in my bedroom, which (thanks to throw pillows and stuffed animals) was Dust Mite Nirvana. Taking the steps outlined here went a long way toward allowing me to breathe more easily:
- Encase. At a bare minimum, encasing pillows, mattress, and box springs with allergy-proof covers will go a long way toward helping those with dust allergies breathe better. The prices have really come down since I started doing this several decades ago, making this much more affordable than it used to be.
- Wash. Wash sheets once a week in hot water. Make sure that all other bedding (blankets, bedspreads/comforters) is machine-washable, and wash it at least monthly (preferably every 1-2 weeks). And while you need to be careful washing curtains, this is also a must-do. (Buying machine-washable ones, or DIYing by sewing your own out of bedsheets, is a good place to start.)
- Limit dust-catchers. Think knick-knacks, piles of things out in the open, elaborate curtains, stuffed animals, etc. If your child has a couple of favorite stuffed animals, try to wash them weekly in hot water (or at least every other week).
- Banish. As in, banish pets from your sleeping space. Banish carpet, and wash any throw rugs regularly (or banish them. too). Even if you’re not allergic to pets, their fur shedding all over will contribute to dust, and can carry pollens/molds into your sleeping space. And carpet is a magnet not only for dust mites, but also for mold.
- Clean. Get a HEPA air purifier (I like ones that you can set on a timer for an hour a day, so you can set it and forget it. Think a dial for different settings, NOT buttons – the ones with buttons won’t work with an appliance timer). Sweep/vacuum at least once a week (I like Swiffer sweepers, because the cleaning cloths really grab the dust like a magnet). Dust regularly, being sure that whatever product you use is actually picking up the dust vs. just moving it around. (I use either the Swiffer refill cloths, or an electrostatic dust cloth that’s washable/reusable.)
Kitchens and bathrooms can be moist, warm places – perfect for harboring mold. Not good for those of us with mold allergies. And the need to ventilate them periodically makes opening the window tempting – but for those with pollen allergies, opening the window only makes things worse.
- Ventilate. Make sure your bathrooms and kitchen have ventilation fans in working order. Ideally, your ventilation fan will be powerful enough to properly ventilate the space in question, and will vent directly to the outside (not back into the same room, or into the attic).
- Clean up spills promptly. Don’t leave puddles of water lying around. Make sure pets’ bowls stay clean and tidy.
- Think clean and dry. Keep sinks, tubs, under sinks, and areas around faucets clean and mold-free. Besides using the fan to ventilate the bathroom after a shower to remove excess moisture, close the shower curtain (while the fan is running) so it can dry off, instead of leaving it bunched up (which promotes mold/mildew growth). Hang towels to dry, change them often, and launder in hot water at least once a week. If there are leaks or drips anywhere, fix them ASAP. And don’t forget to dust/clean vents at the bottom and back of your refrigerator.
- Watch for mold. See black crud around the edges of your shampoo bottles in the shower, or around the edges of your sink faucets? What about around the edge of the gaskets that help seal your refrigerator and dishwasher closed? That’s mold, folks. Clean these trouble spots regularly.
Basements are notoriously dark, dank, damp places. They’re also spots where (in our house at least) clutter tends to accumulate. This makes them breeding grounds for both mold and dust mites.
- Keep it tidy. Again, clutter seems to breed dust. Try to keep yours under control. See this post if you need help getting started.
- Monitor humidity. Humid conditions are breeding grounds for mold, and dust mites need humidity levels above 50% to survive. If you can keep your basement drier, you’ll help to thwart these common allergens. If your basement is especially damp (as many are), it’s worth investing in a stand-alone dehumidifier or two, to remove excess humidity from the air. (We have two in our basement, one in the finished living area and one in our storage crawlspace.)
- Stay on top of what’s up down below. Make sure you’re regularly monitoring life in your basement, so things like the leak that destroyed ours last spring don’t get out of control. Even if it’s not a place you spend a lot of time, make sure you’re down there at least a few times a week to check on things. (Especially in the winter, when pipes are known to freeze and burst, this can save you a lot of challenges down the road.)
- If the worst happens, call in the pros ASAP. Should you be the unfortunate homeowners to experience a burst or leaky pipe, don’t mess with trying to DIY it – call in a professional restoration/repair company right away. Their commercial equipment and sanitizing procedures are what you need to prevent harmful mold growth inside your walls. Once that process starts, it’s extremely difficult and expensive to reverse.
Pets are central members of many families. But many individuals also have pet allergies, and/or develop them over time. Having a pet in the home from a young age is supposed to help one’s immune system become less likely to develop allergies to them. But in my family’s case, we grew up with cats, dogs, and no allergies; as adults, my mama AND baby bro Evan AND I have all become severely allergic to both cats and dogs. Go figure.
If you already have pets and someone develops an allergy, the doctors will tell you to get rid of the pet. This can be hard. But here are some general tips that are worth considering if you want to combine a family pet with an allergic family member or two:
- Avoid co-sleeping. See above on bedrooms. I wasn’t allergic to cats when my cat growing up used to sleep with me, but somewhere along the way – when my room turned into Kitty Sleeping Central (at least 2 of our 3 cats asleep on my bed, 24/7), I developed allergies. If someone has an allergy, their bedroom should be a pet-free zone. Period.
- Bathe/brush/vacuum/filter. Bathe your pet regularly, at least once a week; this can help to minimize dander. (As friends of ours can attest, if you bathe a cat regularly from the time it’s a kitten, it actually enjoys this ritual.) Brush your pet at least as often. Vacuum the whole home, but especially heavy-pet-traffic areas (e.g., upholstered furniture), regularly – at least once a week. And consider HEPA filters in rooms that are especially problematic (e.g., where the pet stays most, and/or the home office of the allergic person).
- Control their environment. If your main allergens aren’t the pets so much as things in the great outdoors (e.g., pollens), then consider limiting your pet’s exposure to the great outdoors. An indoor cat isn’t going to constantly track in pollen, mold spores, etc. on its fur; you can’t say the same for an indoor/outdoor cat.
- Engineer a better experience. Dog allergies? Choose a dog with hair instead of fur (e.g., poodles). You’ll need to have their hair trimmed regularly, but many people find them less problematic than furry dogs for allergen-producing dander. Cat allergies? Shorthairs are generally better than longhairs; hairless breeds are often least problematic. Or if you’re up to the price tag, mail-order a genetically-engineered lower-allergen Siberian. This is what Evan and his wife did, and their kitty Oscar has not bothered Evan’s allergies one bit.
5. The little things
Let’s assume you’ve already done all of the above. There are two levels left to look at: the small day-to-day changes you can make, and the larger structural changes to consider. I’ll start with the little things you can do that will help:
- Ban shoes indoors. Not only will this make a huge difference in how much dirt enters your home (and how much you therefore have to clean), it will also help with allergy control. Besides tracking in dirt and dust, your shoes can bring in pollen, mold/mold spores, and other outdoor allergens. So get a shoe rack, park it by the door, and insist that family members use it. Get a tray to go next to your front door, and insist that guests use it. (A basket of slipper socks or extra slippers by the front door is a nice touch.)
- Keep the windows shut. Monitor outdoor air quality and pollen counts, and avoid opening the windows when either is subpar. Sign up for air-quality alerts, but don’t rely on those alone. (As I type this, the current air quality where I live is Code Orange – unhealthy for sensitive groups, a.k.a. enough to trigger an asthma attack for me. Our local air quality is listed as the worst in the country at present, even though we aren’t under an alert.)
- Breathe easier. Stay indoors whenever possible, if outdoor air quality and/or pollen levels (see above) warrant it. Consider wearing a respirator if you must be outdoors when air quality is poor, or the pollens that trigger your allergies are high. (I just recently bought this one because it was highly rated, especially by those on the west coast who had to breathe a lot of wild fire smoke last fall. So far, I LOVE it – it filters out everything I shouldn’t breathe, but doesn’t feel like I’m wearing a mask!)
- Don’t eat smoke. If you or someone in your home smokes, QUIT NOW. Stay away from smokers and places where they hang out. Banish smokers from your house. Don’t use your wood-burning fireplace or furnace; convert them to natural gas. If you’re near a fireplace or campfire, try to avoid prolonged exposure to breathing the smoke (e.g., stay upwind – honestly, this is the hardest part of family camping trips for me.)
- Clean, clean, clean. Dust and vacuum/sweep at least once a week. If the person with allergies is the one doing the cleaning, wear a mask. Run those air filters. Clean all ceiling fans and freestanding fans of dust regularly, along with those air vents or radiators. Do a thorough room-by-room deep clean several times a year, as dust and mold can accumulate behind large furniture. Change out the filter in your HVAC or home heating system regularly. And get your HVAC system professionally serviced every spring and fall, so your filters are doing their job efficiently.
- Take your meds. Although she hasn’t been tested, we’re pretty sure Essie is allergic to cats, because of how they make her sniffle and sneeze. Along with my cat allergy, Essie has also inherited my asthma. A few months ago, we were visiting my dear friend Keisha and her family. They have cats, and I forgot to bring all of Essie’s maintenance meds. Thank goodness we had her rescue inhaler, because she was having asthma attacks every 2-3 hours all weekend long. Lesson learned.
- Rinse and repeat. Several years ago, when all my maintenance meds still weren’t quite cutting it during the peak of spring pollen season, my allergist suggested rinsing my hair and skin every night before bed when pollen levels were high. It worked! By getting those pollens off my skin (and especially out of my hair) each night, I was no longer breathing them in all night – and waking up miserable.
6. The bigger things
The items in this section are bigger structural changes to your environment that are hard to enact overnight. They’re more the sort of thing to keep in mind the next time you’re moving – say, buying a new home. While you can retrofit them into your current home, doing so is a considerable investment.
- Get central air. This was my #1 priority when Dear Husband and I were shopping for our current home. Yes, I’m a wimp when it comes to handling summer heat. But central air conditioning also makes it easier to keep your windows shut, thereby avoiding letting in high levels of pollen/ozone/particulate matter. Retrofitting central air into a home built without it isn’t cheap, but it can be done. And, as noted above, make sure you get your HVAC system serviced regularly by qualified professionals.
- Replace all your carpeting with hardwood floors. You’d be surprised at how many gross things live in your carpet, from pollens and pet dander to dust mites and mold. Hardwood is just a lot easier to keep clean and dust-free. Because replacing wall-to-wall carpeting with hardwood (or an equally-easy-to-clean alternative) will run into the thousands of dollars, if not five figures, it’s easier to just house-hunt with this in mind if you plan to move in the next few years. (And/or budget for it as one of your pre-move-in upgrades after you close, as we did.)
- Consider upgrades the next time your HVAC unit needs replacing. Among the options (consult with your doctor/medical professionals first, of course, especially if a family member is already under care for allergies and/or asthma): a deep-pleat allergen filtration system instead of regular filters in your air system, a whole-house HEPA filtration system, and/or a whole-house or basement-specific dehumidification system (if, as with our house, your AC alone just isn’t powerful enough to get rid of extra humidity in some pockets).
- Refinish your basement. If your older home has an unfinished basement, the best way to get rid of persistent dampness and mold may start with converting it to a finished space. Again, not cheap – but a worthwhile investment to consider if you don’t plan to move anytime soon.
While there is no such thing as a truly allergy-proof environment, the steps in this post will go a long way toward helping you make your environment a healthier place for family members with allergies and/or asthma!
If you enjoyed this post on how to allergy proof your home, why not share it with others by pinning this image?