Is Your Apartment Making You Sick?

Photographed by Cory Dawson.
It's spring, which means your seasonal allergies are in full freakin' swing. But even if you're an allergy pro, you might not realize that you can be just as sensitive to stuff inside as you are to the pollen swirling outside.

The frustrating part is that avoiding allergens in your apartment isn't as easy as dodging your aunt's cat or walking down the street that isn't lined with cherry blossoms in full bloom — and then there's the fact that all the fragrances and pollutants in your apartment can add to the problem. In some cases, indoor air quality can actually be up to five times as polluted as outdoor quality. Although this cocktail of pollutants poses the most serious risk for people with asthma or other respiratory conditions, it can irritate anyone.
However, there is a lot you can do to clear the air in your home. We spoke with David Stukus, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, to get the details on the most common indoor allergens and irritants.

Dust Mites
Although there are many types of dust mites, Dr. Stukus says they all do pretty much the same thing: hide in stuff, especially places that are warm and humid. That includes mattresses, pillows, and even your precious stuffed animals. The best thing to do is wash your bedding (teddy bears included) using hot water every few weeks. You might also invest in mattress and pillow covers that can help reduce the spread of the mites.

Mold Spores
"Mold loves moisture," Dr. Stukus says. Mold is most often the result of a water leakage, so it's mostly going to be seen in places like your bathroom and kitchen. "But anywhere with poor ventilation is where mold can be found," Dr. Stukus warns. So finding and fixing the source of that dampness is key, especially if the area isn't well-ventilated.
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Cockroaches
If the thought of having cockroaches in your apartment wasn't awful enough, it turns out that you can also be allergic to them. (I know, I know.) More specifically, you can be allergic to proteins in things they leave around. That includes — wait for it — eggs, feces, saliva, and bits of their shells. "Cockroaches are sort of everywhere, especially in inner-city environments," says Dr. Stukus, "and cockroach allergens are a common hidden cause of both allergies and asthma."

They're attracted to food and water, says Dr. Stukus, so making sure all of your snacks are secured and crumbs are cleaned up is essential. Once you've got an infestation, though, calling in an exterminator is the only way to get rid of them — and the allergens they leave behind.

Pet Dander
You may think you've sidestepped this issue by adopting a hypoallergenic breed of dog or cat, but sorry, there's no such thing, Dr. Stukus explains. The dander that's causing your symptoms is actually found in your pet's urine, saliva, and sweat glands in their skin — not their hair or fur. "The amount of dander in the air may change based on how frequently they shed," he says, "but the type of cat or dog, their hair length, and how often they shed doesn't really change whether or not they can cause allergies."

Still, there might be some breeds that you're less allergic to than others. "Certain proteins cause the majority of allergic responses, and a lot of these major allergens are shared across breeds," says Dr. Stukus. "But they also have various minor allergens [that aren't shared]." So, while pretty much everyone who's allergic is reacting to the major allergens, you might respond to only some minor allergens. Unfortunately, we don't have any way of predicting which breeds will trigger your allergies ahead of time.

Aside from putting fluffy up for adoption, you can try to manage your symptoms with over-the-counter antihistamines and keeping pets out of the bedroom where you sleep.

Cleaning Products
Yep, even if they're labeled "natural" or thought to be beneficial, these can irritate the heck out of your respiratory system. "I have many patients that clean vigorously," he says, "but that actually worsens their asthma."So, while it's a good idea to clean in order keep those allergens in check, avoid fragrances as much as possible, and open the windows during and after you do a big scrub down to let in fresh air.

Other Irritants
Other things that might irritate your lungs but aren't allergens include paint, cigarette smoke, and anything that has a scent. That includes air fresheners, candles, and oil diffusers.

Doing some home improvement? The best advice is to opt for paints with no or small amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). As for the others, ask your roommate with the smoking habit to quit lighting up on the fire escape, and get rid of anything with a strong smell. Figuring out the specific source of the irritation can be tricky — one candle might not bother you, while another product really does — but don't give up.
If you're still struggling with symptoms like itchy eyes, congestion, coughing, or worsening asthma, Dr. Stukus recommends talking to a board-certified allergist to get the bottom of it.
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