Sneeze much lately? Is your throat scratchy? Eyes watering, too? You're not alone: Allergies affect more than 20 percent of Americans. Medications can help relieve allergy symptoms, but removing irritants from your home is a much more effective way to stop your stuffy nose, headache, itchy eyes, and shortness of breath, according to the Allergy and Asthma Network/Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA). Read on for the most effective ways to clear the air.
Find Out What You're Allergic to First
Visiting an allergist will help you focus your preventative measures. The most common offenders are dust mites, mold, pollens, and pet dander. "There's no point in making changes at home if you don't address your particular allergies," says Laurie Ross, editor of Allergy and Asthma Today. "Who knows, you might be allergic to cats, and here you are keeping your windows closed."
Then Start With the Bedroom
Once you've established what causes your allergies, work your way around the house eliminating those specific allergens, starting with your bedroom. "If dust is one of your problems, cover your mattress and pillows with zip-on dust mite covers. You spend so much of your day in bed—if you can just get a good night's sleep, you'll be off to a great start," says Ross.
Get Rid of Wall-to-Wall Carpet and Padding
If at all possible, replace them with hardwood or other impervious flooring, especially in the bedroom. "Just about every allergen accumulates in carpet—dust, pollen, pet dander. Walking across carpet re-releases all of that into the air," says Ross.
Avoid Tracking in Trouble
Lay down two doormats at each entryway—one outside, one inside—to keep outdoor irritants from finding their way inside. Or, have your family and guests remove their shoes when they enter, so they don't spread allergens around.
Upgrade Your Vacuum Cleaner
If it doesn't have a HEPA filter, switch to one that does. They're specially made to trap particles as tiny as 0.3 microns—which means they'll be able to capture most allergens.
Change Those Air Filters
Don't forget to clean or replace the filters in your heating and cooling system. Just follow the manufacturers' instructions on timing and frequency.
Ditch the Drapes
Blinds or shades trap fewer allergens than fabric window treatments, but if you insist on curtains, opt for the machine-washable kind, which are easier to keep dust-free. Remove dust by vacuuming once a week with a brush attachment, and wash them frequently during months when you keep the windows open.
There are more than 100,000 species of mold on the planet, and one of their favorite places to live is your bathroom. Clean it regularly, making sure to dry off surfaces that collect standing water, and make sure it's well ventilated. Also replace broken tiles and recaulk sinks and tubs every few years to discourage mold growth behind walls.
Tackle Overlooked Corners
"Most people forget to look under the kitchen sink," says Ross. It's a prime spot for mold growth when pipes drip. Pull everything out of the cabinet and inspect the interior carefully for signs of leaks. Also look for mouse droppings and cockroach webs, since rodents and bugs can trigger allergies, too. Get leaks fixed, seal holes, clean the area, and keep it tidy and dry to eliminate irritant build-up.
Take it Outside
Do your kitchen and bathroom fans just re-circulate indoor air or vent into the attic? If you can, replace them with true exhaust fans, which direct particles and humidity out of the house entirely. "If you're venting damp spaces to your attic, mold can start growing there and eventually spread to the rest of your house," says Ross.
Invest in a Hygrometer
High humidity can lead to mold growth and other problems; this simple device will give you an idea of your home's moisture levels. Pick up one at your hardware store and take a measurement in each room. If you get readings of above 60 percent in any room or area, consider getting a dehumidifier.
Look Into Home Testing Kits
Still suffering from allergy symptoms? Get an air-testing kit, which can measure levels of mold, dust mites, cockroaches, and pet dander in dust samples taken from your home to help you determine the culprit.
Consider a Room Air Filter
Just be aware that they have limitations. "They'll capture airborne allergens but can't trap anything that's settled in rugs or furniture, which is where most allergens end up," says Ross. Still, they can be effective, particularly if you're bothered by pollen. Make sure the one you buy doesn't produce ozone, a gas that's extremely irritating to people with allergies—the last thing you need right now.