When people think of respiratory allergies, they often think of mild hay fever; slight stuffiness of the nose, maybe watery eyes, but nothing particularly serious. The reality, for many people, is far different. They can suffer from much more severe attacks, caused by a myriad of often unknown factors. In fact, respiratory allergies are one of the highest causes of morbidity in the US.
Respiratory allergies, and specifically hay fever, are the 5th leading chronic disease in American adults. This results in approximately 4 million missed work days each year, which translates to more than $700 million in lost productivity. In children, respiratory allergies make up more than 50% of all allergy cases. Moreover, there are direct costs associated with allergies; medications alone cost almost $6 billion, and doctor/hospital visits add another $1 billion (Source: “Chronic Conditions: A Challenge for the 21st Century,”National Academy on an Aging Society, 2000). Other sources, such as one study by the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, put the total cost of allergies at $18 billion, with approximately half due to respiratory cases. These figures clearly show that allergies are not a trifling matter; furthermore, and worryingly, in the United States and many other parts of the world, they are on the increase across all age groups and ethnicities, but especially in less economically stable communities, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
As mentioned briefly above, there are a large number of potential triggers for respiratory allergies. The most common include dust mite residue, pet dander, dust, pollen, mold, and spores, all of which can be found in the home at surprisingly high levels. Moreover, other household items can create fumes or situations which aggravate existing symptoms; these include cleaning products containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and malfunctioning extractor fan systems in the kitchen, which fail to reduce smoke levels effectively.
With all these potential hazards around, how can your allergic reaction to your own home be minimized? The few simple steps outlined below tackle several of the major factors implicated in respiratory allergy suffering in the home.
1) Prevent mold from growing in your home by keeping humidity down. It should ideally be at no more than 60% (and no less than 30%, as dry air can also aggravate respiratory conditions). Leaks and condensation are signs that mold might start growing; fix leaks immediately and look for the sources of drips and condensation. Shower curtains are a favorite spot for mold growth, due to the damp, warm conditions in many bathrooms; an efficient extractor fan and/or dehumidifier can keep humidity down, and changing your plastic shower curtain for a more mold-resistant material may also prevent mold growth.
2) Control and get rid of dust mites by changing or adequately cleaning bedding materials. Approximately 10-20% of Americans will develop sensitivity to dust mites in their lifetime. Because dust mites tend to thrive in warm bedclothes and linens, we often come into close contact with them, which explains the high frequency of symptoms deriving from their presence. However, there are numerous control mechanisms and measures that are easy and relatively cheap to implement in the home. For example, bedding made of certain materials, such as latex or wool, is more resistant to mite infestation than cotton. Similarly, mite-shielding bed covers are readily available on the Internet or in department stores.Finally, simply washing bedding in very hot water, and airing it in direct sunlight, can often be enough to control the presence of dust mites, and thus reduce allergic reactions.
3) Keep your house as free from toxic, volatile chemicals are possible. These fumes are often highly hazardous and are irritants that can exacerbate symptoms and lead to serious respiratory conditions. Always work with chemicals such as paint strippers and bleaches in well-ventilated areas, and avoid exposure as much as possible, or replace with non-toxic alternatives.Washing detergents, drain cleaners and air fresheners which all may contain VOCs can be replaced by natural products, such as borax and vinegar for drains and bathrooms and essential oils or incense to mask bad smells.
For more information, check out the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.