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Home Sweet (Achoo!) Home

Indoor allergens can make you wither in winter

FRIDAY, Dec. 27, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you think your home is the safest place to be when it's cold and windy outside, think again.

Your house or apartment could be making you sick -- especially if you're prone to allergies.

"One of the major problems in industrialized societies now relates to the increasing incidence of allergic and asthmatic disease," says Dr. Gailen D. Marshall, an allergy expert at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. "It has to do with indoor air quality environment."

It doesn't matter if you live in a dry or humid climate. People from Seattle to Phoenix are breathing more and more re-circulated air in the name of energy efficiency. This air picks up allergens in the indoor environment and redistributes them. The problem only gets worse in the winter, when we stay inside so much.

The two main culprits when it comes to indoor allergens are molds and dust mites.

Mold thrives in damp environments.

"It's the constant introduction of water in an environment which is not supposed to be handling that type of water. That is fertile ground for excess mold growth," says Dr. Roberta Lee, medical director at the Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

This means leaking bathtubs, sinks -- even damp clothes hanging in the closet.

Fixing the problem can go a long way toward fixing your allergy symptoms as well. However, this doesn't mean tearing your house down. Simply keeping the bathroom dry, repairing leaks, picking up your clothes and perhaps getting a dehumidifier should do the trick.

"The main thing is people need to look for obvious areas of water leakage because that is usually the tip-off for mold growth," Lee says. "If there's no evidence of water leakage, you shouldn't worry."

Look under the sink and be alert for warped walls and a musty smell, which can indicate the presence of mold, Lee says.

Adds Marshall, "There's no substitute for diligence on the part of the individual who's having these symptoms for going back to look to see if there are water leaks."

Dust mites -- disgusting as they are -- are a perennial problem. The microscopic demons feed on dead skin shed by humans and animals, and you can find them where dust collects the most. They're particularly fond of bedding, couches and carpets.

When dust mites grow, they shed their skin. And that shed skin and feces are what cause allergic reactions in people. Reactions can range from itchy noses and eyes to asthma attacks, according to Clemson University researchers.

Again, attacking the cause is the best solution. Don't let dust collect and know where the dust is worst, such as curtains, tops of ceiling fans and, most especially, mattresses and pillows.

Other than dusting frequently and with vigor, an easy and effective solution is to buy a dust-control mattress cover, available at most hardware stores. This cover basically acts as a firewall separating the dust mites and their food source -- you. Without food, the mites starve and die.

"The dust mites don't have a lot of etiquette. When they eat, they get rid of the waste material so you're literally sleeping in a dust-mite sewer," Marshall says. "If you put the mattress cover on, you're done. It's a wonderful invention and not very expensive and, for a dust-mite-sensitive person, it's a godsend because you can get better in a few days."

Bed clothes should also be washed once a week in hot water (130 degrees Fahrenheit) and dried in a hot drier, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology says.

The other step you can take is set foot outside once in a while, despite low temperatures.

"There's emerging evidence that forms of psychological stress can make allergies and asthma worse, and people actually get kind of stir crazy inside during winter and that can make symptoms worse as well," Marshall says.

"Once in a while put on your coat and hat and go outside," he says. "Go for a walk. Do something you enjoy doing."

What To Do

For more on indoor allergens, visit the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. For more than you probably want to know about dust mites, check this fact sheet from Clemson University.

SOURCES: Roberta Lee, M.D., medical director, Center for Health and Healing, Beth Israel Medical Center, New York City; Gailen D. Marshall, M.D., Ph.D., director, division of allergy and clinical immunology, University of Texas Medical School, Houston
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