With the promise of some of the worst levels of pollen in the country, the fresh air of springtime for many people in North Texas is something, indeed, to sneeze at.
And despite advances in testing and treatment for allergies and asthma, experts say, clearing the air and your environment of allergy triggers is a highly individual, sometimes even fruitless, task.
"The more allergic you are, the more allergy-related conditions you will have, and the more it makes sense to be aggressive and try and control your environment," says Dr. James Haden, a Fort Worth specialist in allergy, asthma and immunology. "But I also try to be practical and say, 'What is the return on your investment?' I don't want people tearing up their carpets unless they were going to anyway, because it's unlikely to be a panacea. More often, it takes a combination of things."
Dust mites, pollen, molds and substances found on animal dander are the most frequent culprits. Avoiding them is difficult: Air, after all, is hard to duck.
"To avoid pollen, you can limit your exposure by rolling up the windows, washing your hair once you come inside," says Dr. David Khan, an allergist and immunologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center. "Trouble is, it doesn't take a lot of exposure to cause a lot of misery, and there's very limited amount of environmental avoidance that's practical."
Some relatively simple steps can help, though.
Dealing with dust mites
The most common human allergy is to dust -- more specifically the waste from dust mites, which feed off the natural shedding of human skin. For anyone not allergic to them, these microscopic critters are harmless. But to those allergic, they can bring on any of many allergic symptoms, from sneezing and itching eyes to asthma attacks.
Dust mites concentrate around bedding, so cleaning up the bedroom can bring some relief for the good six to eight hours of sleep time. Dust mite covers might make it easier to keep bedding clean. Washing bedding in hot water with a little bleach and drying for a long time on high heat rids sheets and pillow cases of the allergen.
Some people like air-filter machines in the bedroom, although there is no evidence they work. "I'm not a fan of ionizers because, in fact, they make ozone," Haden says. "Yet many of my patients say they help. I can't always cure people, but I'd like to reduce suffering. If somebody wants to spend the money and they say it makes them feel better, I'm for it."
Little independent testing has been done of any products that purport to keep air free of allergens. High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in vacuums may help prevent dust and pollen from recirculating into the air. For dusting surfaces, use electrostatic cloths, which hold fast to the dust rather than puffing it back into the air.
High-efficiency or electrostatic air filters for your air conditioner may help prevent recirculation of fine particles into the air, Haden says. Keep drapes and stuffed animals clean or away from your bed, he says. And, he adds, change filters regularly and otherwise keep clean any machines, such as humidifiers, that move air in a room.
Haden is skeptical of sprays and powders, such as benzyl benzoate or tannic acid, that purport to reduce allergies. "If you try them, buy them again only if they seem to work for you," he says.
Many people who think they are allergic to pollen or particulates may simply be physically sensitive to them, Haden says, the way you are sensitive to the irritants in a sandstorm. A true allergy is an immunological reaction that can be detected through blood tests.
Prescription and over-the-counter treatments can help relieve allergy symptoms, or stop or prevent reactions. Some people only find relief in regular doses of allergy shots.