Dear Asking For a Friend,
I have been noticing that my itchy eyes and sinus congestion are getting worse with the more time I spend at home. I have a lot of carpets that I love, but could they be making my symptoms worse?
Signed, Love My Carpets
Dear Love My Carpets,
Indoor allergies can become a concern when you’re at home and indoors more often — and that soft, feel-good carpeting beneath your feet may not be helping.
Allergies are one of the most common chronic disorders worldwide, and develop at any age, kicking in when your immune system overreacts to normally harmless substances in your environment called allergens, like pet dander, pollen and dust mites. In response, your body releases chemicals, including histamine, that cause bothersome symptoms, like itchy, watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, itchy throat or nose, and sinus congestion.
Carpet can be a magnet for allergens that settle into the fibres, increasing your chances of exposure to these irritants, not only causing these symptoms, but also potentially leading to more serious health effects.
A 2018 study by researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health reviewed the link between carpets, indoor air quality and worsening asthma and allergy symptoms. The scientists concluded that floor coverings can increase the level of indoor dusts, allergens and microorganisms, along with the risk of negative health outcomes, including mild cognitive effects, irritative symptoms and asthma.
But the carpet industry argues that dust and other allergens happen everywhere, no matter the type of flooring, and that well-cleaned carpets actually trap allergens so that fewer particles escape into the air to provoke allergies and asthma.
Oh, what to do?
Dr. Alan Kaplan, a family physician in York Region, chair of the Family Physician Airways Group of Canada and a member of Asthma Canada’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee, advises against throwing out carpet without first identifying what’s causing allergies.
“I very rarely tell people to get rid of their carpet,” he says. “It depends on what you’re allergic to, how bad your asthma is and how much your allergies affect your asthma.”
For example, if you’re allergic to grasses and trees, carpet makes little difference. But if there’s a smoker in the house, cigarette smoke settles into carpet and cloth-covered furniture and can be an irritant to the lungs.
“Secondhand smoke is somebody else smoking,” says Kaplan. “Thirdhand smoke is the stuff that gets stored in furniture and carpets.”
Dust mite poop
Kaplan says the most common allergy is dust mites, which, according to the American Lung Association, are “microscopic, insect-like pests” that live in bedding, mattresses, upholstered furniture, carpets or curtains, feeding on flakes of dead skin that is found in dust. But it’s not exactly the mites that cause the allergy.
“For dust mites, it’s not the actual insect that you’re allergic to — it’s the dust mite poop,” he says. ‘It’s very heavy.”
The particles, though, Kaplan adds, “are not going to jump from the carpet all the way up to where you’re breathing in the air, but if you’re a two-year-old crawling around on the carpet, then your face is right in the carpet. That’s when exposure is going to be more significant.”
Which is why dust mites could be a bigger problem in your mattress and your pillow — the things your body is in contact with for six or more hours each day. But there are ways to ensure that the invisible insects — and their poo — aren’t joining you for a snooze.
First, your pillow should be washed at least twice a year — of course, as long as laundering is recommended in the care instructions. The key to eliminating the critters is the water temperature: a temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit or more is ideal. Another option is putting your pillow in the dryer at a high-heat setting. Bedding like sheets and blankets should also be washed on the hottest setting, at least weekly.
Other strategies to cut down on allergens in the bedroom include pillow and mattress covers, and removing anything that collects dust — such as stuffed animals.
Kaplan recommends regular vacuuming and dusting of household surfaces to stay on top of dust mites and their poo. If you have crawling toddlers who are allergic, you may want to consider replacing carpet with a hard surface that’s easier to clean.
Pets add another layer of allergen potential. Carpet is a powerful collector of the flecks of skin shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds and other animals with fur or feathers, also known as pet dander. While HEPA filters can help reduce pet dander in the air, sometimes pets may have to be removed from the home if allergies are severe, says Kaplan, a decision that, as a pet owner, he doesn’t advocate for. Still, it is important to consider the impact that allergens are having on the humans in the household.
The bottom line is that in order to successfully deal with allergies, it’s important to know exactly what you are allergic to, he says, adding that an allergy or asthma diagnosis doesn’t mean you need to pull up your carpet.
“Know how to decrease the allergen load and then make an individual decision,” says Kaplan, recommending consulting with a physician for advice.