How to reduce allergens and improve air quality in your home this winter

As temperatures drop, more and more people are squatting indoors and spending more time at home. The extended hours indoors can be great for relationships, downtime, and your own mental health; but a lack of fresh air can also mean an increased susceptibility to allergens and airborne diseases.

The most common pathogens that are commonly spread indoors include whooping cough, measles, COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), flu, and the common cold.

Polluted indoor air from mold and fungus growth, pet dander, pest allergens and dust mites can also be bad for anyone prone to allergies. “The air is drier in winter, which means we’re more susceptible to indoor allergens, and some allergens are more likely to become airborne and stay in the air longer,” says Jeffrey Siegel, professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto .

The good news is that experts say and research shows there are some simple steps anyone can take to improve the quality of their indoor air during the winter months.

open the windows

The first step, while it may seem obvious, is to crack a window or two. “Houses are usually ventilated through open doors and windows,” says Jordan Peccia, a professor of environmental engineering at the Yale School of Public Health. “When we close windows in winter to conserve energy, allergens that have indoor sources such as dust mites or pet dander are not removed by ventilation, which can result in higher concentrations (of allergens) indoors.”

Therefore, on days when the air is warm enough, Peccia recommends “ventilating your house with outside air” — as long as you’re aware of the troublesome pollen that might be circulating nearby. In fact, research shows that “inadequate ventilation” is a factor that contributes to the concentration of mold or fungus indoors. “Indoor allergen concentrations can be higher in winter because most people keep their windows closed, so less fresh air gets inside,” says Lynn Hildemann, professor of environmental engineering at Stanford University.

Use indoor plants for cleaner air

Plants are another helpful resource for improving indoor air quality this winter. It has long been proven that houseplants can draw pollutants out of the air and improve indoor air quality. Bill Wolverton, a former NASA research scientist, told TIME magazine that while we don’t know how many plants it takes to improve indoor air quality in one’s home, at least two “large” plants per 100 square feet of indoor space are recommended. “The Boston fern is one of the most effective plants for removing air pollutants,” he said; however, added that his personal favorite is golden pothos, also known as devil’s ivy, “as it’s a popular plant and easy to grow.”

Get your air ducts cleaned

Another way to improve indoor air quality is to attack pollutants at a common but often overlooked source: the home’s air duct system. “The purpose of a forced air distribution system is to ensure that heating, cooling, and sometimes ventilation, gets to all parts of the home,” Siegel explains. “So when the system is operational, it can also serve to spread allergens or anything else in the air from one room to other rooms.”

Erik Schweitzer, regional operations manager for KC Clean Air in Lees Summit Missouri, says he’s seen “several inches” of dirt, skin dust, pet hair, and even pest feces in many of the residential air duct systems his company has cleaned and disinfected over the years. “When people buy a house, they never think about looking into their air ducts and are often surprised at how much they’ve inhaled from the previous occupants,” he says.

He explains that the sewerage of newly built houses can be particularly bad. “When a house is built, the air duct system is one of the first things that goes in, and during construction, any vent can fill up with dirt, sawdust, debris, and even workers’ cigarette butts,” Schweitzer warns. “Typically none of that gets removed once the finishing work is done and the vent covers are in place, so the new homeowners have to breathe in all of that from the day they move in.”

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency warns on its website: “With improper installation, maintenance and operation, (air ducts) can become contaminated with dust particles, pollen or other contaminants. When moisture is present, the potential for microbiological growth (e.g. mold) is increased and spores from such growth can be released into the living space of the home. Some of these pollutants can cause allergic reactions or other symptoms in people when exposed to them.”

As such, Peccia recommends keeping the air duct system “clean and well-maintained” to “improve the air quality in your home.”

Change your HVAC system filter often

Likewise, another important step is to reduce the spread of allergens, pollutants, and other contaminants by changing your stove and air conditioner filter as often as recommended. “The best defense is to have a good filter, install it properly so there are no gaps, and change it often,” Siegel says. “If done well, it will go a long way in reducing the spread of allergens through the system.”

While there are many good furnace filters to choose from, Jim Manwill, co-owner of Manwill Plumbing and Heating in Salt Lake City, Utah, recommends choosing one with a high MERV rating. “The higher the MERV number, the better the filtering,” he says. However, he warns that a filter rated too high will catch more particles than necessary and will need to be changed more frequently. “A rating of MERV 5 to MERV 10 is a good filter for most homeowners,” he says.

And while replacing your own HVAC filter makes the biggest difference, the experts emphasized the importance of checking other filters in the home as well. The filters in vacuum cleaners, tumble dryers and air vents in appliances also need to be cleaned and replaced from time to time.

“Having the right filter and changing it according to manufacturer recommendations can make all the difference in maintaining good indoor air quality,” said Melanie Carver, chief mission officer of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Keep surfaces clean and tidy

Another important way to reduce airborne allergens and the spread of viruses is to clean and disinfect surfaces frequently. On their website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that in addition to good hygiene, “cleaning and disinfecting surfaces can reduce the risk of infection.”

To reduce the build-up of allergens in addition to infections, Carver recommends “cleaning surfaces and keeping them clutter-free.” This is especially important as unkempt areas of the home can lead to rodent or insect infestations – both additional sources of potentially problematic allergens.

While cleaning surfaces in every area of ​​the home is important to remove dust particles, Carver says it’s best to “focus on your sleeping areas like bedrooms first, and then try to tackle other areas of your home.” “.

Carver also recommends “washing linens weekly in warm water and detergent” and using a “high heat setting” when using the tumble dryer.

And when it comes to cleaning surfaces, don’t neglect furniture. “Floors and carpets are generally vacuumed much more frequently than the furnishings, even though people stir up dust that has settled on the furniture when they sit,” explains Hildemann. “So my advice would be to vacuum the surfaces of your favorite furniture more often too.”

Also keep carpets and carpets clean

In fact, vacuuming is one of the most important things one can do to keep allergens at bay – but it can also make things worse for a time, which allergy sufferers should avoid. “Vacuuming stirs up a lot of particles, including allergens,” says Siegel. Therefore, “people who are sensitive to allergies should not be around during or immediately after vacuuming”.

Completely forgoing vacuuming only makes things worse in the long run, because carpets and rugs are proven magnets for dust, dirt and numerous allergy particles in the home. “During normal household activities, such as walking around on carpets or sitting on fabric furniture, allergens are thrown back into the air,” warns Hildemann. “Dust mites are found throughout the home…but they tend to be most resistant to effective cleaning when they land on a fabric surface or carpeted floor.”

To keep such allergens at bay, Carver recommends vacuuming the house once or twice a week.

Use cooking hoods

Another simple step anyone can take to improve indoor air quality this winter is to use integrated cooling vents in their devices. Because many indoor air pollutants come from the kitchen, and electric and gas stoves in particular can emit harmful impurities or pollutants into the home. In fact, studies show that carbon monoxide levels in the home are increased when the cooker is used without using the hood.

Therefore, “carbon monoxide alarms are a must for every home,” advises Manwill. “Protect yourself and your family by installing at least one detector on every floor of your home.”

Using built-in kitchen ventilation systems or opening windows also reduces other cooking pollutants. “Use exhaust fans in your bathrooms and kitchen,” suggests Carver.

From cleaning surfaces and furniture to buying houseplants, interventions in indoor air quality are important in any home, especially because allergens can affect each individual in very different ways.

“A person with eczema can be incredibly itchy in bed because beds are great spots for dust mites, a person with asthma can have allergic asthma attacks related to cat allergens, and a person with mold allergy can have sneezing and itchy nose and eyes when mold grows in their house,” explains Carver. “Everyone is different in how sensitive their immune system is to an allergen.”

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