20 Sneaky Spots Where Allergy Triggers Hide
Hello, sneeze season
Another year, another allergy season. If you suffer from springtime sneezing, itchy eyes, and nasal congestion—all symptoms of allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever—you may be dreading the next few months as trees and flowers bloom and release pollen, one of the most common allergens in the United States.
You also probably know some tricks for minimizing your exposure to airborne irritants, like keeping your home vacuumed and dusted, and staying indoors on high-pollen days. But those strategies may not be as effective as you think: Pollen and other allergy triggers may be hiding in places in and around your home you’d never realize. To truly clear the air, consider these other potential contributors to your allergy symptoms.
When pollen is in the air, any outer layer of clothing you wear outdoors can collect these tiny particles. That’s why it’s a good idea to brush off jackets or sweatshirts before heading back indoors. If you’ve been walking through a park or field with tall grass or blooming plants, give your pants a good shake-off too.
“The pollens that causes most people problems aren’t the heavy, large particles—it’s the smaller, invisible ones that are light enough to become airborne,” says Keith Young, MD, an allergist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Translation: Even if you don’t see allergens on your clothing, they might still be there. If you’re particularly sensitive, put potentially contaminated items directly into the washer rather than letting them lay around or wearing them again.
Because heavy pollens fall to the ground and we don’t typically breathe them in, you may not have to worry so much about the yellow powder you’re tracking in on your shoes. But your kicks can bring in other potential allergens as well, including dust and dirt that can make its way into your carpets.
To keep these particles outdoors where they belong, leave shoes by the door. The same goes for anything else that’s visibly dirty, like gardening gloves, tools, or outdoor sports equipment.
Curtains, shades, and blinds
You probably remember to wash your sheets and vacuum your floors regularly, but how often do you give your window dressings a good cleaning? Curtains and other window coverings may initially block allergens from blowing into your home, says Bryan Martin, MD, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology—but that just means they’re collecting those particles themselves.
“When your windows are open and your curtains are blowing around, they’re acting like a filter and a collection surface,” says Dr. Martin. “But the more pollen and allergens they collect, the more it’s going to be a potential irritant for you.” Wash curtains at least seasonally, and replace horizontal blinds with easy-to-clean roll-up shades.
Bedding and pillows
Leaving your bedroom windows open on breezy springtime days can bring pollen into your bed. But even if you seal up your sleeping quarters on high-pollen days, there are other ways it can become contaminated: If you come in from the outside and immediately plop down on your sheets, for example, or if you toss your bag or jacket onto your comforter.
But pollen isn’t your biggest worry when it comes to allergens in bed. Dust mites are much more common in mattresses, blankets, and pillows, says Dr. Young, and can cause sneezing, coughing, and itching year-round. These microscopic critters exist in all homes—no matter how clean you are or how much time you spend dusting. Your best defense against them is to use allergen-proof fabric or plastic covers on your mattress and pillows, and to wash your bedding weekly in hot water.
Just as dust mites can get into your pillows and blankets, they’re also living in your kids’ stuffed animals and plush toys. That can be a real health hazard, since dust mites are a common cause of asthma in children.
“We tell people who are allergic to dust mites to remove stuffed animals from the bedroom or at least from the bed,” says Dr. Martin. You can also reduce your family’s exposure by buying machine-washable toys and laundering them regularly. (Run them through the clothes dryer, too, rather than air-drying them.) Items that can’t be washed can be put in the freezer for 24 hours to kill dust mites.
Yes, you can be allergic to your pet’s dander—but if you suddenly begin sneezing or wheezing around your four-legged friend, don’t automatically assume it’s a reaction to the animal itself. That’s because your dog or outdoor cat can also track in additional allergens, like dust and pollen.
“During pollen season they run and roll around in the grass, and they pick up these particles on their coats,” says Dr. Martin. To cut down on transmission, wipe them down with a damp washcloth after they’ve spent time outside. Keeping your pet out of your bed and off of upholstered furniture can help keep allergens away, too.
Fans and air conditioners
If you’ve ever looked closely at a box fan in a window, you’ve probably noticed how dirty it can get; that’s because it’s capturing a lot of those airborne particles that can contribute to allergies. What you can’t see? It’s also increasing the flow of these particles into your house. Wipe down blades and cages regularly, and don’t run window fans during days or times when pollen is high.
Be sure to take care of air conditioners, too: Both window and central AC units have filters to block the influx of pollen and other allergens, but these filters need to be changed as directed in order for them to do their job.
Your air filter
Purchasing an indoor air purifier can help remove some contaminants and odors from the air. “But one of the problems is that people forget to clean their filters,” says Young, “so they themselves become sources of allergens by causing a secondary spread.”
Buying an air filter probably won’t make a huge difference in your air quality or in how you feel, says Young, but you may find it beneficial if you do suffer from bad allergies. If you want to try one, shop smart: Look for brands that contain a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, and avoid those that produce ozone—a gas that can irritate the lungs.
Running your vacuum regularly can help remove pollen, dust mites, and other allergens from your floors—especially where you have rugs and carpets. But it can also stir up tiny particles that can become airborne and inhaled; some models even spew dust and allergens out of their exhaust vents.
To capture as many of these particles as possible—and avoid spreading them all over your house—use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and make sure both the filter and bag (if applicable) are changed as often as directed. For non-carpeted surfaces, consider mopping instead. And if you’re extra sensitive to dust or indoor allergens, wear a dust mask while you vacuum, or ask someone else to do it for you.
Even if you do vacuum regularly and use a HEPA-filtered machine, you’re probably not removing as many allergens as you think from your rugs and carpets. “It’s hard to say how much simple vacuuming actually accomplishes,” says Dr. Young. “We know that kind of environmental control for things like dust mites is marginally effective—and unfortunately the things that make a lot of common sense don’t necessarily help.”
Overall, Dr. Martin agrees, carpeted surfaces will always hold more allergens than non-carpeted ones—something to consider if you are badly affected by indoor allergens. On top of that, new carpets can also off-gas toxic chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when you first bring them into your home.
Just like your carpet and bedding can collect allergens like dust mites and pet dander, so can upholstered couches and chairs throughout the house—even upholstered headboards in the bedroom.
Vacuuming furniture regularly can help remove surface dust and pet hair. (Be careful with steam cleaning, which kills dust mites but can foster the growth of more allergens by increasing humidity levels.) When shopping for new furniture, consider easy-to-clean coverings like leather.
During spring allergy season, you may pick up pollen in your hair every time you walk around outside—especially if you use gel or mousse, which can trap the tiny bits of plant powder. Not only can this bother you during the day, but it can also be transferred to your pillows and bedding at night.
Washing your hair before bed at night can rinse away those particles and help keep your sheets and pillowcases clean. If you’re spending a lot of time outside on high-pollen days and don’t plan on showering afterward, consider wearing a hat.
Behind your walls
Mold is another common indoor allergen, caused by excess moisture. It can grow year-round, but springtime rainfall can increase a home’s likelihood of leaks or high humidity levels. Holes in the roof or damaged plumbing in the kitchen or bathroom are common sources of mold, says Martin, although its growth may be hidden behind a wall and unnoticeable at first.
If you suspect you might have moisture behind your walls—unexplained allergy symptoms or a musty smell are two potential clues—hire a professional to test for mold and remove it if necessary.
Potted plants can also be a source of mold or mildew, says Dr. Martin, especially if their soil is kept too moist or water is left to pool in the pot’s tray. (The same goes for fresh-cut flowers if their water goes too long without being changed.) Remove moldy leaves from plants immediately, and give the soil time to dry between waterings.
Most leafy house plants don’t release pollen, but check with your gardener before buying any shrubs, grasses, or small trees you plan to keep indoors. Colorful flowers usually don’t trigger pollen allergies either, but keep in mind that some can have strong odors.
Your vehicle can be a hidden allergen trap in more ways than one. “If you have a leaky windshield or a leak somewhere on the interior, you can get moisture inside the car and get mold,” says Martin. “You can also get pollen in your car if you leave your windows open, or if you bring it in on your clothing.”
If you’re driving on busy highways, though, the biggest thing to worry about is exposure to gasoline and diesel emissions. Even on mild spring days when it feels great to put the windows down, it’s safer to keep them up and set your car’s air to “recirculate,” found a 2013 University of Southern California study.
“A lot of people love the way bed sheets and towels feel when they’ve been air-dried on a clothes line in the backyard,” says Dr. Young. “But if your yard has a lot of pollinating trees or plants and you bring those sheets in and put them on your bed, you’re going to have trouble.”
Not everyone has to rule out line drying, adds Dr. Young. (After all, it’s better for the environment than tumbling dry in a machine.) Pay close attention to pollen counts in your area, and whether you experience allergy symptoms after bringing laundry in from outdoors.
Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves provide a cozy atmosphere, but they can also create smoke and fine particle pollution that can irritate airways and aggravate asthma and allergies. Smoke produced by backyard fire pits and campfires in the woods can also be hazardous to people with heart or lung disease, as well as young children and older adults.
If you do want to use your fireplace, consider having a retrofit device installed; it can reduce air pollution by up to 70%. Be sure your chimney is clear and in good working order, and never burn wet wood, which produces more smoke.
Allergens that cling to clothing and jackets can find a temporary home in the upholstered seats of busy movie theaters, Dr. Martin says. Pollen is one possibility in the springtime, but the biggest culprit year-round is cat dander. “The cat antigen is electrostatically charged and it’s very small, so it sticks to everything—walls, chairs, clothes—and it travels around with people,” he explains.
“If you’re allergic to cats, you don't have to physically be around a cat to have a reaction,” Dr. Martin adds. Pay attention to when and where you experience symptoms, so you can talk to your doctor about pretreating yourself in the future—like, for example, taking an antihistamine before going to the movies.
One of the most obvious yet overlooked places where allergens can hide isn’t right under your nose—it’s right in it. Every time you inhale, tiny hairs inside your nostrils act as filters, trapping particles like pollen and dust. The problem is, they can get stuck there and contribute to your body’s allergic response.
Rinsing your nasal cavity with a saline wash or using a neti pot can help clear away accumulated allergens and mucous, and may help you feel better faster. Just be sure to follow all instructions and don’t over-use these products, as long-term or improper use has been linked to certain health risks.
Finally, it’s important to consider who is coming into your home and what they’re bringing along. Along with pollen and pet dander, houseguests who smoke or who work with strong chemicals can also bring in toxic fumes (like thirdhand smoke) on their clothing.
You probably don’t want to refuse your loved ones entry into your home, but you may consider asking them to remove their jackets and shoes before entering. As for those frequent visitors who smoke, this is just another reason to encourage them to quit.