May 27, 2014

Vanderbilt allergist offers tips on managing dust and dander allergies during Spring cleaning

Cleaning house can stir up the dust and dander winter left behind—and pose significant issues for allergy sufferers.

There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place. As people across the country put this adage into action with spring cleaning, an allergist at Vanderbilt’s Asthma, Sinus and Allergy Program (ASAP) Clinic says it’s important to remember that when putting everything in its place, many housecleaners are likely to stir up the dust and dander winter left behind—and both can pose significant issues for allergy sufferers.

“Dust mite and pet dander allergies are two of the more common ones that we see in our clinic,” said Robert Valet, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine. “While they don’t generally cause the severe reactions we can see in people allergic to bee stings, foods or latex, they can still cause a great deal of discomfort for those who are allergic.”

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) estimates that up to 27 percent of Americans demonstrate sensitivity to dust mites.  The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) notes that up to 30 percent of Americans have allergic reactions to cats and dogs. Additionally, cat allergies are approximately twice as common as dog allergies and affect nearly 10 million pet owners in the United States.

An allergy to dust is actually caused by the dust mite, a very small and translucent pest barely visible to the human eye. They prefer warm and humid climates and tend to reside in mattresses, upholstered furniture, bedding and carpets, places where human exposure to the insect occurs regularly.

Valet said dust mites primarily feed on dead skin cells from both animals and humans. In fact, he says, it is estimated that one human sheds enough skin cells in a single day to feed 1 million of the mites. The dust mite digests this food and the excrement contains proteins which become trapped in dust. These are the primary allergens that cause symptoms.

In contrast, says Valet, allergies to pet dander are caused by proteins found in pet dander, urine and saliva. Valet notes that dogs that naturally don’t grow hair are sometimes considered hypoallergenic; this is a common misconception because even though there is no hair for the dander to latch onto, the skin will still shed the allergen-containing dander. Because there is a lot of variability between individual cats and dogs even within one breed, choosing a breed thought to be hypoallergenic does not mean that the particular pet will not produce high levels of allergens.

While they have differing underlying causes, those allergic to dust mites and pet dander tend to experience similar symptoms. Valet says that common reactions include red, itchy and watery eyes; sneezing; coughing; congestion; and a runny, itchy nose. In some cases patients may also experience skin rashes like eczema or hives. Valet stresses that exposure to both pet dander and dust mite allergens can exacerbate the symptoms of those with asthma, occasionally leading to severe asthma attacks.

Both dust mite allergies and pet allergies are treatable, says Valet. For those with dust mite allergies, treatment strategies first focus on limiting exposure to dust. Valet recommends:

  • When cleaning, wearing a mask similar to the ones used in construction and woodworking—these can be found at many hardware stores and the most protective are of the N-95 grade;
  • Vacuuming the dust off of your carpets, your upholstered furniture and your bedroom once or twice a week;
  • After vacuuming, allow dust to settle for 15 minutes and then dust hard surfaces;
  • Purchasing dust mite covers for bedding—these are woven, allergen-proof covers commonly available at retailers and drugstores that go over your pillows and mattress, containing the dust mites;
  • Purchasing HEPA air filters, which help lower the dust being circulated around the home;
  • Washing your bedding in very hot water, as dust mites cannot survive high temperatures, and drying on high heat as well.

Treatments for pet dander allergies also involve prevention. Valet notes that the best way to avoid an allergic reaction to pet dander is to avoid pets. However, if there is a pet in the household, he suggests:

  • Keeping the pet out of the bedroom, where people typically spend the most time at home;
  • Keeping the pet off upholstered furniture;
  • Having someone who is not allergic to pets brush the animal outside a few times a week, to try and remove excess dander;
  • Bathing the pet weekly;
  • Vacuuming regularly;
  • Removing carpets and rugs, which trap pet dander;
  • Trying over-the-counter antihistamines and other allergy medications.

“Pets and dust can be very important triggers for patients’ allergies and asthma, and while they most frequently cause relatively mild symptoms, when they become severe it is important to come in and see an allergist,” Valet said. “An allergist can conduct allergy testing, which allows the doctor to pinpoint the specific allergen that’s causing symptoms. They can then create a course of treatment beyond what would be available over-the-counter in a drugstore, such as administering allergy shots to desensitize a patient to a certain allergen.”