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Allergies: controlling your environment

9-minute read

If your child has allergies, many things inside and outside your home can trigger or worsen allergy symptoms. The things that cause allergy symptoms are called allergens. Some common allergens in the environment are pollen, mould, house dust mites, animal dander (dead skin flakes) and cockroaches.

Other substances that are irritating can make allergy symptoms worse. Examples of irritants include cigarette smoke, air pollution, perfume, strong odours and cold air.

You can lessen you or your child's allergy symptoms by trying to limit contact with these allergy triggers and irritants, especially in places you or your child spends a lot of time such as at home or school. Here are some things you can do that may help.

Pollens

Pollens from grasses, weeds and some trees can be carried through the air for miles. These pollens land in the eyes, nose and airways, causing the symptoms of allergies or asthma. Although it is hard to avoid pollens completely, here are some suggestions:

  • Stay inside (when possible) during pollen seasons, particularly on windy days or after thunderstorms.
  • Keep doors and windows shut in your house and car in the pollen season. If you have an air conditioner in your house or car, use it. If you use a room air conditioner, re-circulate the indoor air rather than pulling air in from outside. Wash or change air filters once a month. Do not use window or attic fans.
  • Keep your child away from trees and grasses as much as you can in the pollen season.
  • After being outside during allergy season, shower and change clothes right away. Do not keep dirty clothes in bedrooms because there may be pollen on the clothes.
  • Dry clothes in a vented dryer, not outside.
  • Wear sunglasses outside.

Information about pollen counts in Australia is available at pollenforecast.com.au

Mould

Mould can grow anywhere, but it especially grows in damp and dark areas. It can be found inside the house, outside and even in foods. Mould grows all year round.

Mould is often found in bathrooms and basements. It is also likely to grow in evaporative coolers, humidifiers and the refrigerator drip pan and vegetable crisper.

Here are some ways to decrease mould growth:

  • In the bathroom, clean the tiles, floors, shower curtain, bathtub and base of the shower thoroughly and often. Also clean under the sink. Use a cleaning solution that kills mould. An inexpensive one is diluted household bleach (1 cup of bleach in 10 cups of water). Use gloves and ensure the area is well ventilated, as bleach can be irritant to skin and airways. If you are sensitive to bleach, use a household cleaner without bleach that says it kills mould.
  • Ventilate damp areas, like bathrooms. Remove any damp rugs or carpets.
  • Seal any leaks in the bathroom or roof. Clear gutters and blocked underfloor vents.
  • Use paint rather than wallpaper on your walls. Some paints discourage the growth of mould, but will not kill existing mould. Ensure you correctly prepare surfaces and follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Dehumidifiers can help keep mould from growing in damp places such as basements. Look for areas that become damp after heavy rain and fix any leaks that you find.
  • Evaporative coolers, vaporisers and humidifiers with a reservoir are ideal places for mould and bacteria to grow. When these appliances are operating, mould and bacteria can be sprayed throughout the house. In general, these appliances are not recommended. If you do use one, empty the reservoir daily, clean it with soap and water and dry it thoroughly. The reservoir should be refilled just before use.
  • Remove any dry rot in wood frame housing

Greenhouses, compost piles and houseplants also frequently harbour mould. To reduce mould growth in the garden and in plants.

  • Cover the potting soil of houseplants with foil to reduce the spread of mould spores (tiny particles).
  • Remove indoor plants.
  • Reduce exposure to lawns being mowed or garden compost or mulch.

House dust

All kinds of things are in house dust — dirt, insect debris (body parts and faeces), dust mites, dead skin, food crumbs, bacteria, fungi and more — many of these substances are allergenic. Dust mites are the most common source of allergens in homes, particularly in humid areas. Dust and dust mites collect on every item in the home, including mattresses, carpets, couches, clothes, rugs, curtains and soft toys.

It is hard to avoid house dust, but the following ideas will help.

In the bedroom:

  • Avoid clutter and dust catchers, particularly in the bedroom. These include knick-knacks, wall decorations (pictures, pennants and fabric wall coverings), curtains, shades or blinds, stacks of books and piles of papers or toys.
  • Keep the bedroom wardrobe door closed. Vacuum the wardrobe floor often. Store only in-season clothes in the wardrobe.
  • Do not have carpets in bedrooms. Remove any carpets laid directly on concrete, if you can, as condensation collects between concrete and carpet
  • Mattresses should have allergen-proof covers, such as plastic. You can get allergen-proof covers where bed linens are sold. Zippers or openings should be taped. Use only polyester pillows. Cover pillows with allergen-proof covers or wash the pillows each week in hot water. Also wash blankets, sheets and pillowcases in very hot water (hotter than 55°C) every week. Cooler water used with detergent and bleach or a product containing tea tree or eucalyptus can also work. Tumble dry washing on hot for 10 minutes after it is dry to kill dust mites. Avoid products made of feather, wool, kapok (plant fibre) or foam.
  • Remove sheepskins or woollen underlays from the bed and bedroom.

Other ways to avoid house dust include:

  • Bare floors are best. You can replace carpet with washable, non-skid rugs. Damp mop the floors often. If you have carpet, vacuum often and thoroughly. Be sure to clean under the furniture and in wardrobes.
  • Forced-air furnaces should have a dust-filtering system. Filters should be changed at least once a month during the heating season. Filters can be cut to cover room vents if the central furnace filters are not changed monthly. Cold and warm air ducts should be professionally cleaned at least every four to five years.
  • Use an air cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or an electrostatic filter — some vacuum cleaners also have HEPA filters.
  • Reduce humidity — if possible, have a dry and well-ventilated house. Avoid using evaporative coolers (water-cooled air conditioners) and unflued gas heaters, as these release water into the air. Dehumidifiers or central air conditioners can take moisture out of the air if you live in a humid climate.
  • Try not to sleep or lie on cloth-covered cushions or furniture — vinyl or leather are alternative coverings.
  • Keep soft toys out of the bed, or wash the toys weekly in hot water or in cooler water with detergent and with bleach or eucalyptus oil. Placing toys weekly in a dryer or freezer may help. Prolonged exposure to dry heat or freezing can kill house dust mites but does not remove allergens.
  • If you usually get symptoms during housecleaning or yard work, wear a mask (available in pharmacies) over your nose and mouth during these chores.

Pets

Allergens are found in animal saliva, sweat, hair, urine and dander (dead skin flakes). These substances cause allergic reactions in many people.

You may be more sensitive to one type of animal (such as cats) than another. Any animal can cause an allergic reaction, and even 'hairless' breeds can cause allergies.

If you are sensitive to animals and have a pet, the pet should live outside or stay in just one part of the house and never be in the bedroom. Wash your hands after touching pets.

If someone in your house is very sensitive to a family pet, you face a hard decision. Giving away a family pet is hard, but it may be necessary. If you do give up your pet, thoroughly clean the house. It is especially important to clean stuffed furniture, wall surfaces, rugs, curtains and the heating or cooling system.

Cockroaches

Cockroaches and their droppings are a major allergy trigger. It can be hard to get rid of cockroaches, but here are some tips:

  • Keep food and garbage in containers with tight lids. Take garbage out often.
  • Never leave food out or uncovered. Keep food out of bedrooms. Do not leave out pet food or dirty food bowls.
  • Vacuum or sweep the floor, wash the dishes, and wipe off countertops and the stove right after meals.
  • Fix any water sources that leak.
  • Plug up cracks around the house to help stop cockroaches from getting in.
  • Do not store paper bags, newspapers or cardboard boxes.
  • Use bait stations and other environmentally safe cockroach poisons.

Smoking and other irritants

Anyone with allergies should not smoke and should avoid being around those who do smoke. If others want to smoke, they should smoke outside. No smoking should be allowed in the car or in the house. Avoid wood-burning fireplaces and wood-burning stoves.

Try not to breathe fumes from paint, insecticides, strong cleansers or products containing irritants.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2021


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