Spring Cleaning Should Include Your Air Ducts
As spring allergy season approaches, you may hear companies make bold promises to improve your health by reducing allergens in your home. Such boasts may appeal especially to the nearly 25 million American adults and children with asthma and the approximately 50 million who have allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, because the symptoms of both can be triggered by dust mites, mold, and other allergens often found in air ducts and elsewhere in the home. Allergies, according to the CDC, are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.
But should you believe the hype? Will air duct cleaning help you breathe more easily?
Common Allergy Triggers
1. Your Overactive Immune System
Many things can trigger an allergic reaction. It happens when your body's defenses attack something that's usually harmless, such as pollen, animal dander, or food. The reaction can range from mild and annoying to sudden and life-threatening. In the US, about 30% of all adults and 40% of children have allergies.
It comes from plants such as grasses, trees, and weeds and can trigger hay fever or seasonal allergies. You might sneeze and have a runny or stuffy nose and itchy, watery eyes. Treat these with over-the-counter products, prescription drugs, and allergy shots. To help prevent symptoms, stay inside on windy days when pollen counts are high, close windows, and run the air conditioning.
3. Animal Dander
You love your pet, but if you're allergic, you react to proteins in his saliva or in his skin's oil glands. It might take 2 years for that to start. Luckily, you may still be able to live with him. Make your bedroom a pet-free zone, opt for bare floors and washable rugs instead of carpets, and bathe him regularly. A HEPA filter and allergy shots may help, too.
4. Dust Mites
These tiny bugs live in bedding, mattresses, upholstery, carpets, and curtains. They feed on dead skin cells from people and pets, as well as on pollen, bacteria, and fungi. They thrive in high humidity. To cut down on problems, use hypoallergenic pillows, cover mattresses, pillows, and box springs, and wash sheets weekly in hot water. Keep the house free of dust-collecting items such as stuffed animals, curtains, and carpet.
5. Insect Stings
These could cause swelling and redness that may last a week or more. You might feel sick to your stomach and tired and have a low fever. In rare cases, insect bites trigger a reaction that can be life-threatening, called anaphylaxis. If you're severely allergic, you'll need medicine called epinephrine right away. Your doctor may recommend allergy shots to prevent reactions.
It needs moisture to grow. You can find it in damp places such as basements or bathrooms, as well as in grass or mulch. Get air moving in moist areas of your home.
Milk, shellfish, eggs, and nuts are among the most common foods that cause allergies. Others include wheat, soy, and fish. Within minutes of eating something you're allergic to, you could have trouble breathing and get hives, vomiting, diarrhea, and swelling around your mouth. If your reaction is severe, you will need emergency medical help. So call 911, and use your epinephrine pen if you were prescribed one.
Found in some disposable gloves, condoms, and medical devices, latex can trigger a reaction ranging from itchy, red skin to anaphylaxis with trouble breathing. Symptoms can include a rash or hives, eye irritation, runny or itchy nose, sneezing, and wheezing. If you’re allergic, wear a medical alert bracelet and carry an epinephrine kit if you were prescribed one.
Penicillin, aspirin, and other drugs can cause hives, itchy eyes, stuffiness, and swelling in your face, mouth, and throat. If you're allergic to a drug, it's best to not take it. Your doctor can talk to you about other medicine options or treatments that may allow you to take a medicine if it's necessary.
A protein in their droppings can be a trigger. Roaches can be tough to get rid of, especially in a warm climate or if you live in an apartment building where they can move back and forth between neighbors. Treat them with bug killer, and keep a clean kitchen. Repair cracks and holes in floors, walls, and windows to keep them out of your home.
Montanaro, a professor of medicine and chief of the allergy and clinical immunology division at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, often talks with patients about their heating systems as he investigates the possible environmental triggers of their allergies.
“If they have forced air, that’s part of the conversation,” he says.
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems push air through ducts that run throughout your house in walls, ceilings, and floors. Mark Zarzeczny, who sits on the board of directors of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA), calls ducts the "lungs of the home."
How can you tell whether your air ducts need attention? Visual clues, like signs of mold and excessive dust around the air vents, can point to a need for cleaning. But when there’s no evidence in plain view, allergist Tania Elliott, MD, advises people to ask themselves the following questions:
- If your house is more than 10 years old, have your ducts ever been cleaned?
- Does your house constantly collect dust no matter how much you clean it?
- Do you notice allergy symptoms when you turn on your heating/cooling system?
- Do you have asthma that’s not well controlled even though you’re taking your medicine?
Answering YES to any of these questions should encourage you to consider cleaning your ducts.
“It’s better safe than sorry for people who have underlying asthma or allergies or breathing issues,” says Elliott, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and chief medical officer of EHE International, a healthcare management company that focuses on preventive medicine.
Time, Cost, and What to Avoid
Zarzeczny says a typical job on a 2,000-square-foot home will take about 3 to 5 hours and should be done every 3 to 5 years or if the signs described above return. Expect to pay at least $500 to $600.
“Anybody who offers to do a job for less than a few hundred dollars is not going to deliver to you what you need to have done,” says Zarzeczny, who chairs NADCA’s anti-fraud task force. “You don’t want a company that advertises at prices like $79.95 because they’re either going to be in and out in half an hour or they’re going to upsell you and walk out with $4,000.”
In fact, a rushed, inadequate job can do more harm than good. According the EPA, “an inadequate vacuum collection system can release more dust, dirt, and other contaminants than if you had left the ducts alone.”
Some Quick Tips to Help You Breathe Better Inside
- Outside Air
Most home heating and cooling systems simply recirculate the air that’s already in the house, including all the dust, dirt, and pollen. When the weather’s nice and pollen counts are low, open windows and doors to freshen things up. This is especially important if there are fumes from painting, cooking, kerosene heaters, or hobbies like woodworking.
- Simple Cleaning Products
Some cleaners have harsh chemicals that can cause breathing problems or trigger an allergy or asthma attack. Read labels carefully and stay away from ones that have volatile organic compounds (VOCs), fragrances, or flammable ingredients. You can make your own cleaners with plain soap and water, vinegar, or baking soda.
These can be more than nice to look at, especially if your home is energy-efficient or not well-ventilated. In addition to getting rid of carbon dioxide and boosting oxygen levels, some can even help clear the air of chemical vapors. Of these, the easiest to grow and keep healthy include English ivy, ficus trees, peace lilies, and certain types of palms.
- Your HVAC
A dirty filter on your heating and air conditioning unit can keep air from flowing the way it should and lead to mold growth if it gets damp. Change it at least every 3 months and make sure it fits well. If you have asthma or allergies -- or you have pets or a large family -- you might want to check it once a month. It’s also a good idea for a professional to inspect the unit once a year.
If there’s mold in your house, the tiny spores can float into your nose and even your lungs. That can lead to allergy symptoms, like coughing or sneezing, or other breathing issues. The fungus loves damp areas, so keep bathrooms dry. Turn on a fan or open a window to help move air after you shower, and hang up wet towels and washcloths. If you see mold in the tub or other areas, you may need to clean more often to help keep it at bay.
- Air Fresheners
Even pleasant smells can cause problems. Some air fresheners have VOCs in them that may bother your nose and throat. Other aerosol sprays, including some health and beauty products, have VOCs, too.
- Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
If you keep them too long, mold can grow on them. Check stored fruits and vegetables often, and toss anything that has mold or slime on it. To keep them fresh longer, don’t wash them before you store them -- do that just before you eat them. If you’re not sure if something is fresh, throw it away.
These bugs can cause problems even after they’re dead. When they die, their bodies break down into small bits, and those can get into the air. The same can happen with their poop. Those bits can get into sheets, pillows, and other fabrics, and may trigger asthma attacks or allergic reactions. If you know you have a roach problem, use roach baits instead of sprays.
These can happen with sinks, toilets, showers, dishwashers, or refrigerators -- even your roof. Pooled water can lead to issues with mold and cockroaches, so any leak needs to be taken care of quickly. Call a plumber if you can’t find where it’s coming from or don’t know how to fix it.
The only thing cockroaches like more than water is food. When dinner’s over, put anything that’s left in airtight containers. And if you throw food away, make sure it’s into a trash can that has a lid on it.
Dander and other allergens that Fido and Fluffy bring in from outside can cause trouble for your lungs. As hard as it might be, it’s a good idea to keep them out of bedrooms and off beds. If that’s not an option, bathe them regularly and vacuum the areas where they spend time.
- Forgotten Areas
Cabinet tops and vent hoods are a couple of places people sometimes forget to clean, along with behind toilets and under bathroom sinks. Wipe them down every so often with warm, soapy water. Give your pets’ dishes a daily wash, too, and check around for other areas that might collect grease, food, grime, or water.
- Linens and Rugs
Wash sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and area rugs once a week in 130-degree F water to help get rid of dust, mold, mites, and other things that can affect your breathing. And get rid of throw pillows that don’t have zip-off covers. They collect dust mites and pet dander and can be hard to clean.
Fabrics can trap dust, pollen, and other allergens. The next time you give the living room a new look, consider leather or vinyl furniture instead of cloth. If you have issues with allergies or asthma, you also might want to hang blinds instead of curtains, and dust them regularly.
Hard surfaces, like wood, don’t collect things that affect your breathing the way carpet can. If you need some soft areas, use throw rugs you can clean in a washing machine or sink. If you can’t take up your carpet, vacuum it weekly with a cleaner that has a HEPA or small-particle filter. When it needs to be professionally cleaned, be sure to use a certified “asthma & allergy friendly” service.
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