What is an Allergen?
So, what exactly is an allergen?
Our immune system is supposed to keep us healthy by attacking dangerous pathogens, but the system can sometimes get overzealous and attempt to fight substances that aren’t actually a threat. This is the oversimplified explanation for allergic reactions—the immune system misidentifies otherwise harmless allergens as invaders to be vanquished, which triggers the release of chemicals to fight the allergens. Those chemicals are what lead to itching, sinus congestion, runny nose, scratchy throat, coughing, wheezing, and all the other symptoms that allergy and asthma sufferers know all too well.
Simply put, an allergen is any substance that triggers an allergic reaction. Otherwise harmless to individuals without hereditary disposition (known as atopy), common household allergens include dust mites, pollen, pet dander, and mold. Of course, the full list of allergens is quite long, which is one reason at-home allergen testing is so important—you can’t effectively address the underlying cause of allergy suffering if you don’t know exactly what it is.
Exposure to allergens is a contributing factor in the development or aggravation of asthma, hay fever, eczema, and other chronic allergic diseases. Pinpointing and then removing the allergens from the home is the most effective way to stop allergies from developing and intensifying.
There are some basic steps for minimizing the prevalence of household allergens. Keep in mind that these are merely high-level tips, and that a full remediation plan requires a comprehensive understanding of the exact types of allergens present in a given home.
- Cover your mattress and box spring in mattress encasements, which will help eliminate dust mites that might be lingering in your bed.
- Wash your pillows, sheets, and blankets weekly in hot water.
- Fix water leaks and ventilate damp areas, lest you facilitate mold growth.
- Clean the house frequently, using a weak chlorine/bleach solution, as needed.
- Consider a dehumidifier if your basement is damp or you live in a very humid climate.
- Use air conditioning rather than opening windows on warmer days. This has the dual benefit of reducing airborne allergens while also lowering the humidity, which dust mites and mold thrive in.
- Air filtration systems, if carefully selected and properly maintained, can reduce allergen counts. However, these systems may not be worth the expense for more moderate allergy symptoms, so check with your doctor before purchasing.
If left unchecked, allergens in your home can trigger allergies or asthma symptoms. Testing your home is a great way to determine if something in your home is the culprit behind your symptoms.
Here is a quick look at the four most common household allergens:
Allergen: Dust Mites
Common Symptoms: Sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, congestion, itchy throat, postnasal drip, cough, facial pressure and pain, wheezing
Peak Seasons: Fall and Winter
An overwhelming share of U.S. homes have detectable levels of dust mite allergens in beds, and about half have levels exceeding the threshold for allergic sensitization, according to a study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. A home need not be visibly dirty or unkempt for dust mites to be plentiful.
Common Symptoms: Sneezing, runny nose, irritated eyes, cough, congestion, itchy throat, wheezing
Peak Seasons: Late Summer to early Fall, and Spring
Most mold thrives in damp spaces, and so the allergen is most common during humid months. However, since it can grow inside as well as outside, mold can be found year-round. If a home has experienced flooding or even minor water leaks, there’s a good chance mold is present.
Allergen: Pet Dander
Common Symptoms: Sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy and watery eyes, cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, congestion, rash
Peak Seasons: Year-Round
Cats and dogs produce allergens that are found on their hair, skin, and saliva. All cats and dogs produce allergens; although some breeds of dogs are said to be “hypoallergenic,” in part because they shed less, studies have failed to show a significant difference in the prevalence of allergens with these breeds.
Common Symptoms: Sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, itchy throat, cough
Peak Seasons: Spring (tree), Summer (grass), and Fall (ragweed)
A host of trees contribute to pollen allergy triggers, and it’s not always the brightly colored flowering ones, as some people assume. Old standbys like ash, birch, cedar, elm, oak, and willow are among the major culprits. Keeping windows closed is the most effective way to keep pollen out of the house.