Our homes are likely the healthiest they’ve ever been. After all, thanks to the modern standards for construction materials, we no longer need to worry about carcinogenic lead and asbestos used to build our homes.
Plus, an assortment of environmentally friendly alternatives allows us to avoid harsh chemicals like bleach and ammonia when cleaning around the house. That said, if you are wondering if your house is making you sick, you should know there may still be some dangers lurking in your home that you might not be aware of that could lead to respiratory, dermatological, or gastrointestinal ailments.
Fortunately, it’s possible to spot and rectify many of these concerns before they become an issue. Read up on the common culprits, find out where problems might exist, and take these steps to remedy the situation for a healthier household.
Common Causes of Household Illnesses
Your home is likely equipped with a system to detect smoke and hazardous carbon monoxide. And it’s a good bet that you’re highly conscientious about the use and storage of products like paints and cleaners that may contain caustic chemicals or VOCs.
But it’s also wise to be mindful of the other household health risks. They can be grouped into three general categories:
- Germs, or microbes, are an umbrella term for bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other infectious agents. The Mayo Clinic explains that while most germs are harmless, some can lead to colds, flu, or intestinal distress, among other illnesses.
- Mold, a form of fungi, reproduces by releasing spores, which can then spread through air, water, or animals. As mold grows, it can produce irritants and allergens, typically resulting in sneezing, nasal congestion, and itchy eyes or skin rashes in people sensitive to them, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some mold can also produce dangerous mycotoxins, which have been linked to serious diseases, including cancer and immune system disorders, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
- Airborne allergens can include dust, pollen, pet dander, and environmental pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrocarbons. They enter the house through windows and doors as well as travel on our clothing as we come and go, and can trigger asthma as well as common respiratory symptoms.
What is Your House Could Be Causing Health Problems?
Now that you’re aware of the biggest culprits, the next step is learning how to spot the clues that some of these may be affecting your house and your health. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
Does your home have sneaky leaks?
Faulty plumbing and roofing let in moisture, providing an ideal breeding ground for mold. Give your house a top-to-bottom checkup for evidence of moisture and water damage, then repair any issues post-haste. Running an air conditioner and/or dehumidifier can help maintain a healthy indoor humidity level of between 30 and 50 percent.
Visible signs of mold on hard surfaces (typically a cloud-shaped spread of dark rounded spots) should be removed immediately.
Remember that the EPA says damage over 10 square feet can be hazardous and is a job best left for a professional mold remediation specialist.
When was the last time you cleaned your bedding?
Most folks make a weekly habit of washing sheets and pillowcases to banish bacteria, dust mites, and dead skin cells. Yet we’re frequently lax when it comes to comforters, duvets and duvet covers, mattress protectors, bed skirts, pillows, and other soft bedroom basics.
As a general rule, these items should be laundered (preferably in hot water, i.e., 130°F) every three months, or more often if you sleep with pets. Failure to do so can cause allergy, asthma flare-ups, and skin issues such as eczema and folliculitis (inflammation of hair follicles).
Are your appliances causing a health problem?
For the most part, the machines we depend on to run the house are safe. However, the potential dangers of gas stoves have been garnering attention recently. A 2022 study linked 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases in the U.S. to the nitrogen dioxide these ranges emit. What’s more, unburned natural gas, which contains the carcinogen benzene, can leak from stoves.
As the Consumer Product Safety Commission considers potentially regulating these popular appliances, folks may wish to weigh the risks, particularly if developing or exacerbating asthma is a concern, and consider switching to an electric stove.
Clean your fridge
The fridge can be a hotbed of dangerous bacteria, from salmonella and E.coli to botulinum toxin, unless certain practices are followed. To keep microbes at bay, the interior temperature of the refrigerator must remain between 32°F and 40°F, and the freezer at 0°F.
It’s also a good idea to avoid overfilling the fridge, which prevents cold air from circulating adequately. Never place raw meat on an upper shelf, lest juices accidentally leak, contaminating the food below. Clean the fridge regularly using hot, soapy water to remove any crusty, crumby, sticky, and otherwise icky residue where microbes can thrive.
Clean small appliances regularly
While you’re at it, don’t forget to clean the microwave and coffeemaker either—both small appliances can easily become bacteria-breeding grounds.
Beyond the kitchen, cleaning your washing machine (manufacturers recommend monthly) is wise to get rid of mold, mildew, and bacteria that might find its way onto “freshly” laundered clothes.
How often do you clean rugs and curtains?
While these soft surfaces add a sense of luxury and comfort, they’re also hospitable to dust, pollen, pet dander, and mold. Carpet and rugs are notorious where a “no shoes indoors” rule isn’t enforced. Curtains may not be trodden upon, but they cover windows through which outdoor pollutants can enter; plus, as vertical surfaces, they’re easy to overlook.
So vacuum carpets at least weekly. Simply reducing household dust may go a long way toward staving off sneezy, wheezy, snotty symptoms—and deep-clean them every three months. Machine washable window treatments are an ideal solution for people plagued by allergies, and if pollen is the main problem, toss curtains in the washer even more frequently during your troubling seasons.
Have you been neglecting your HVAC system?
We trust our heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system to keep indoor air clean and comfortable. But if it’s poorly maintained, it can blow allergens and pollutants into every room.
Outsmarting respiratory symptoms starts with the filters, which must be installed correctly and changed regularly—every 50 days in the homes of the allergy-prone (this TOH tutorial shows you how).
Having the system professionally serviced once a year may help prevent health issues from potentially dangerous refrigerant leaks and widespread mold (for more info, consult this EPA guide to air duct cleaning).
Do you have a pest problem?
Ick alert! Roaches and rodents can contaminate surfaces with bacteria and viruses, including salmonella, staphylococcus, and streptococcus. Cockroach droppings can also trigger asthma and allergy attacks. Diseases associated with rodents include murine typhus, the blood infection leptospirosis, and let’s not forget the plague, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
When safeguarding your place against vermin, practice caution with pesticides: Some contain such ingredients as permethrin, diazinon, propoxur, and chlorpyrifos, exposure to which can cause headaches, dizziness, twitching, and nausea, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Preventing infestation by keeping properly storing food and promptly cleaning any residue and crumbs after eating is paramount. But should creepy-crawlies breach your abode, first consider safer essential oil-based repellents, like those with peppermint. If these fail, consider hiring a professional exterminator rather than risk using heavy-duty pesticides yourself as a last resort.
When did you last wipe down the light switches, remotes, and doorknobs?
Think about all the places around the house that every member of the family touches on a daily basis—from drawer pulls and faucet handles to the buttons on the microwave or coffee maker—these are the high-contact spots, and that’s what you want to target.
The more a surface is touched, especially with not-so-pristine fingers, the more vulnerable it is to collecting germs—and those germs can cling! Researchers from the University of Virginia found that 40 percent of objects handled by cold sufferers tested positive for cold germs some 18 hours later. Yet many of the items we grab, pull, twist, and flick—remote controls, light switches, cabinet hardware, doorknobs, and fridge and freezer handles—tend to get the short shrift in our cleaning and sanitizing routine.
Sure, you can try to remember to hit up all these areas during regular housekeeping, but it may be better to set aside five minutes a week for a quick cleaning using disinfecting wipes to give these hot spots their due diligence. With all its nooks and crannies, the TV clicker can be a particular cleaning challenge.
To get the job done, remove the batteries before wiping down the unit with a clean cotton rag dipped in rubbing alcohol. Then travel around the buttons with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol, and dry with a lint-free cloth.