It seems unfair that something so small can cause such a powerful bodily reaction. But for an estimated 40 million people in the United States, allergens like pollen, mold, and dust mites can trigger a season-long bout of sniffling, sneezing, and itching. Worst part is, these allergens seem to be everywhere, even lurking in your home. But before you start cleaning everything you own, you should probably go get an allergy test at your doctor’s office first. “You don’t want to go tearing up the house and find out that you’re actually allergic to the ragweed outside,” says Hugh Windom, MD, an allergist-immunologist and professor of medicine at the University of South Florida.
Still want to declare a war on allergens? Here are 10 spots where they’re probably hiding.
That stuffed panda bear you won at a fair
When it comes to harboring allergens, fake animals might be right up there with real animals. The reason: Dust mites are the most common indoor allergen—and these microscopic little critters survive on a steady diet of human skin cells. “Every time we hug a stuffed animal, we’re feeding the dust mites,” says Stephen Canfield, MD, PhD, an allergist at ColumbiaDoctors Midtown in New York City.
If you’re still sentimental about Teddy—or if it belongs to, say, your child—you don’t have to toss it. Just make sure to wash it once a week in hot water (at least 130 F).
We spend about six to nine hours a day sleeping—which means that “your bed is a major source of dust mite exposure,” says Dr. Windom. Experts recommend keeping your pillow (and mattress) covered in a special allergy-proof covering—ideally one that’s labeled “mite-proof”. “These casings are made of a tightly woven cloth that doesn’t allow dust mites to settle into the fabric,” says Dr. Canfield. Toss your sheets into the wash with Teddy once a week.
Your window fan
Sure, it’s cheaper than turning on the air conditioning, but whatever you’re saving in electric bill payments may be offset by the cost of allergy meds. That’s because window fans suck in air from outside, pulling in allergens like pollen, ragweed, and even mold. “There are certain molds that mulch up the dead leaves on the ground, especially in the fall, and their spores are released into the air,” says Dr. Canfield. If your allergies tend to flare up during, for example, pollen season, try to keep the windows closed and the AC running. “At least you’re not ushering in any new allergens,” he says.
Your office plant
Mold also thrives inside buildings, too—especially in damp places like the soil in potted plants. While many outdoor molds lie dormant during the colder, winter months, the spores from the indoor varieties can travel through the air in any season, triggering symptoms year-round. Unfortunately, the only way to ward off mold spores is getting rid of the moisture. But there are healthier plants for your home, as well.
Your super-cushy couch
Dust mites don’t just lounge in your bed all day—they also live in the thick fabrics on furniture. (And unlike bedsheets, you can’t toss couch cushions in the washing machine.) Steer clear of velvety fabrics if possible, and opt for smoother, thinner materials instead. “Leather is probably the least allergenic material,” says Dr. Canfield. Plus, “you can vacuum it and be sure that much of the dust will be removed.”
Okay, you don’t have throw this out, per se, but you might want to stash it during allergy season. Since dust mites absorb fluids from the air around them, they tend thrive in humidity levels that range from about 70% to 80%, says Dr. Canfield. Using a dehumidifier, therefore, can help them survive longer.
Unfortunately, however, humans also don’t do well in low-humidity environments. Dr. Canfield suggests trying to keep the humidity levels in your home to around 50% (during the winter, the levels are around 20% to 30%), which should render the bugs dormant.
Those old papers on top of your filing cabinet
Cleaning out clutter is the number one thing that people can do to reduce the dust that mites live in, says Dr. Canfield. He recommends storing knick-knacks and old files in sealable boxes that you can wipe down easily. Besides, if you haven’t read those papers by now, how important are they, really?
Your vacuum cleaner
A super-cheap vacuum may keep your floors clean, but if it lacks a HEPA filter, it may be time to invest in a new one. Vacuuming can kick up dust particles that have been living in the carpet, and a HEPA filter prevents the bugs from re-entering the air. But since these filters can be expensive, they might work best for people who notice an uptick in their allergy symptoms while they’re vacuuming the house, says Dr. Canfield. Check out our healthiest vacuum cleaner roundup for buying options.