Pollen and Outdoor Mold
As with other types of allergies, the ideal way to manage hay fever is to find out what your child is allergic to and then avoid it. It sounds simple, but this is much easier said than done. To start with, many children are allergic to pollens and molds, both of which are found everywhere outdoors and cannot be completely avoided. Children need to go outside to play, so pollen exposure when outdoors is unavoidable. Exposure to outdoor pollen and mold that enters the house can be decreased by closing windows and using air conditioning, showering and changing clothes as soon as children come inside at the end of the day, and by making sure bedding is dried in a dryer, not outside on a clothes line.
Dust Mites and Molds
In addition to outdoor allergens, a child may be allergic to routinely encountered indoor substances such as dust mites or indoor molds. These everyday allergens can be kept at low levels when certain changes are made. Still, they are almost impossible to eliminate altogether, no matter how carefully you clean your home. Your child is also bound to run into indoor allergens and irritants when he ventures away from home and into other environments, such as school or friends’ homes.
Dust had a reputation for causing sneezing and irritation long before allergies were called allergies. Not only does it irritate the nose, throat, and eyes, but it can also contain allergenic materials. A major cause of allergic symptoms lies beyond the dust itself. It has been traced to dust mites—tiny creatures that, like Dr Seuss’ Whos down in Whoville, make their homes among dust specks. But whereas the Whos asked only to be left in peace, there’s no getting away from dust mites. They live wherever humans live; in fact, they clean up after us. They can live on any organic debris, but their preferred diet is the half gram or so of worn-out skin cells that every human sheds daily. They also thrive on tiny fungi—like the mites, too small to be seen with the naked eye—that flourish where the relative humidity is fairly high, at 70% or more. Spores from these fungi are a major cause of allergic symptoms in humans.
Dust mites congregate where food is plentiful. They are especially numerous in beds, pillows, upholstered furniture, and rugs. Although vacuuming and dusting can help decrease dust levels inside the home, these measures don’t work very well against dust mites. As gross as it is, your child is actually allergic to a protein in dust mite feces. So steps are taken to kill dust mites and to use a containment approach to avoid mites’ feces. Padded furnishings such as mattresses, box springs, pillows, and cushions should be encased in allergen-proof, zip-up covers, which are available through catalogs and specialized retailers. Covers made of nonwoven synthetic fabrics are more comfortable than plastic covers and work at least as well. The microscopic dust mite fecal particles are too large to pass thorough allergy-proof covers.
Choose blankets and pillows made of synthetic materials. Because dust mites can survive in warm soapy water, wash linens weekly and other bedding, such as blankets, every 2 to 3 weeks in hot water, then put them through the hottest cycle of a clothes dryer. Pillows should be replaced every 2 or 3 years.
Dust mites also abound in cuddly stuffed toys. When possible, replace soft, plush-covered toys with others that have smooth plastic bodies and washable clothes. If your child has a favorite soft toy from which she can’t be parted, wash it every other day or so in hot water and dry it at the highest setting. Or seal soft toys in plastic bags and put them in the freezer for at least 5 hours or overnight once a week. Dust mites cannot survive longer than 5 hours at freezing temperature; you can then rinse the toys in warm water and put them in the dryer to get rid of the dead mites. These steps will not necessarily remove all of the allergenic dust mite feces, but they help!
Keep bulky fabrics and dust-catching clutter out of your child’s room. Remove wall-to-wall carpeting, if possible. Floors should be wooden, tile, or vinyl—anything but carpet. Damp mopping and electrostatic floor mops are helpful for clean up. If you prefer rugs for comfort, use small cotton or synthetic throw rugs that can be washed weekly in hot water. Curtains should be easily washable.
When it comes to the walls, the aim is to eliminate horizontal surfaces that trap dust. There should be no picture frames or shelves displaying books or ornaments, and all surfaces—on dressers, bedside tables, and other furniture—should be easy to wipe clean.
Avoid humidifiers and vaporizers. Dust mites need humidity to live, and humidification will only further help the mite population grow. For the same reason, using a dehumidifier in certain moist geographical locations can be beneficial by helping to keep the humidity below the range that suits mites and molds. However, if you use a dehumidifier, it’s essential not only to empty the water pan but also to scour it daily to prevent the growth of invisiblesome airborne allergens but are not generally useful for dust mites.
No matter how careful you may be, you can’t protect a child as if she were a hothouse plant. And even if you were to succeed in eliminating most environmental allergens in your home, children still get exposed at school and at playmates’ homes. Furthermore, it’s hard to avoid the normally harmless kinds of nonallergenic irritants that can set off symptoms in a nose already primed and twitchy from allergen exposure.