If you’ve been living with allergies, you probably know the obvious stuff by now — don’t take in stray cats, don’t hang around in dusty attics, don’t inhale deeply in smoking lounges. But that might not be enough. There could be hidden allergy triggers and irritants all around you that you don’t know about.
And these hidden allergy triggers aren’t the only issue. Just as problematic are the unsuspected ways that you might be getting exposed — even to allergens you think you’re avoiding.
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.
1. Mite-y Plush Toys
Sure you encased the mattresses in barrier bedding, but then you tucked little junior in with that cute stuffed lion (aka the dust mite colony). Those snuggly animals are a magnet for mites.
To eradicate the allergen army, you can wash stuffed animals in hot water, followed by a high temperature dry, but that may cause the toys to lose their fluff.
A good alternative? Freeze the toys in a plastic bag for 24 hours; freezing also kills dust mites. You can then wash them on the gentle cycle with warm or cold water, and let them air fluff in the dryer.
2. Pets — but not for the reasons you think
It’s not just the animal dander. Even if you’re not at all allergic to dander, pets are prime culprits for bringing hidden allergy triggers into the house.
“Outdoor pets go outside and roll around in the grass, which could be covered in pollen or mold,” says Portnoy. Then they come in and sit on the couch, and on your bed, and on you. The only solution is to either keep your pets indoors or bathe them regularly.
3. Fishy Friends
Fish may seem like allergy-friendly pets, but without sufficient upkeep, Nemo can become a symptom trigger. Mold grows on various parts of fish tanks or bowls, and on areas outside of the tank that remain damp, including the underside of the lid. Scattered fish food can also encourage mold on your furniture or flooring and help to nourish a dust mite colony.
To keep mold at bay, dry off above-water tank parts daily, and periodically give the tank or bowl and all its decorations a thorough cleaning. Filter media should be changed once a month to prevent mold growth and to keep fresh oxygen flowing. When you feed the fish, immediately clean up any flakes that miss the tank.
4. Vacuum cleaners
Yes, vacuuming can actually be bad for allergies. A normal vacuum is fine for sucking up the obvious stuff, like dust, dirt, and pet hair. But the allergens themselves are so tiny that they can go right through the filter, rocketing out of the vacuum’s exhaust. “Vacuuming with a low-efficiency vacuum is probably making things worse,” says Portnoy. “You’re turning your vacuum into an allergen dispersal device.”
What should you do? Much as we might all like to have a doctor-approved excuse for giving up on housework, that’s not an option. People with allergies need to vacuum regularly, since a buildup of dust — full of allergens like pollens, dust mites, and insect remains — is the last thing you need.
So instead, shell out for a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter, which will be fine enough to catch most allergy-irritating particles. Another option is a central vacuum — if your house has one installed — since at least then the allergens aren’t being dispersed in your living space, says Portnoy. Then, vacuum regularly — especially if you have pets, or if you’ve had the windows open during pollen season.
5. 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.
5. Cleaning products
Not only is vacuuming a problem, but many cleaning agents can be tough on people with allergies. While not proper allergens, cleaning agents can irritate the airways and trigger quite serious symptoms.
The key is not to let the odors become too concentrated. “When you’re cleaning in an enclosed space, you must always have good ventilation,” says Pramod S. Kelkar, MD, chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology’s Cough Taskforce. “Always open the window or run an exhaust fan.”
6. Your hair
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.
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.
8. Your car
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.
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.
10. Indoor pollution
Every ragweed pollen season, you might dutifully shut the windows and barricade yourself in your home. But while you’re focused on the allergens outdoors, you could be missing the equally troublesome irritants inside. Studies have shown that indoor air pollution is often at least twice as high as what you get outdoors — and often much higher.
“While there might be pollution outside, at least you have infinite ventilation,” says Jay M. Portnoy, MD, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI.) “But inside, irritants can become very concentrated.” So when you’re looking for hidden allergy triggers, start inside. After all, that’s where we spend 90% of our lives.
11. 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.
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.”
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.
14. Your nose
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.
15. Your guests
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.