Pet allergies are nothing to sneeze at—an estimated 10% of the U.S. population and up to 30% of people with asthma suffer from them. Despite the less-than-desirable consequences, many still yearn for creature companionship. "I'm very pro-pet," says Clifford Bassett, MD, allergist and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. "But if you have a pet and allergies, you need to look for a long-term solution to create a comfortable and safe experience." Before making any significant changes to your lifestyle or home, Dr. Bassett recommends being diagnosed—usually by way of a skin test or sometimes with a blood test called RAST—at an allergist's office. That way you'll be sure it's the cat that's causing your symptoms and not the dust mites in your bed. Read on to learn what triggers pet allergies and the steps you can take to reduce them.
Cause of the Problem
The kind of allergen each person reacts to varies: The culprit may be a protein found in an animal's dander (skin flakes), saliva or urine, or it may be an outdoor allergen, like pollen or mold spores, stuck to the fur. So a person who gets stuffy at the sight of a cat may be fine with dogs, and vice versa. Feline allergies are about twice as common as the canine variety.
Allergies can also get better or worse over time, says Andy Nish, MD, allergist and president of the Allergy and Asthma Care Center in Gainesville, Georgia. Just because you didn't have symptoms when you first adopted your pet doesn't mean you're allergy-free today.
Sneeze-Proof Your Place
If you love your pet but not the sneezes and itchy, watery eyes that come with him, follow these steps to minimize symptoms:
- Consider having your pet be an outdoors-only buddy.
- Keep your bedroom (and other frequented areas, if you can) a no-pets zone. Pet allergens are lighter and more buoyant than other kinds, like those released by dust mites. If your pet visits your room even once, the particles could linger for up to six months.
- Wear an N95 filter mask. Look for ones approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at home improvement or safety supply stores or Amazon.com. They block out allergens during times of high exposure, such as when you're brushing your pet or cleaning the house. (Even better, let someone else handle those chores.)
- Purchase allergen-protective slipcovers for your pillows and bedding. "It's a simple, inexpensive way to reduce exposure to dust mites or pet allergens that find their way into pillows and bedding," says Dr. Bassett.
- Use a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter, which can trap most offending particles. You can also put a stationary HEPA air purifier/filter in your bedroom.
- Limit fabrics in the home. Opt for leather instead of upholstered furniture and swap out carpet for hardwood, tile or linoleum. For an easy fix, use throw rugs that can be washed in hot water.
- Seek medical advice. "Oftentimes people live with their symptoms because they don't realize there's good treatment available," says Dr. Nish. Remedies include both over-the-counter and prescription medications, immunotherapy or allergy shots.
- Wash your bedding in hot water weekly—140 degrees will do the trick.
Hypoallergenic Pets: Fact or Fiction?
The Obamas chose Bo, the Portuguese Water Dog they adopted, because Malia, 13, has allergies, and the breed is known for being hypoallergenic—as are Poodles, Irish Water Spaniels, Chinese Crested, Maltese, Bichon Frise, Schnauzers, several Terrier breeds, Hungarian Pulis and Xoloitzcuintli. They have non-shedding coats and therefore don't generate as much dander, according to the American Kennel Club. However, there's no scientific proof that hypoallergenic pets actually exist, because even a tress-less dog or cat produces allergens, says Dr. Clifford Bassett. Breeds can affect allergic people differently too, so while Malia may have no problems with Bo, Portuguese Water Dogs may not be the best option for you. If you're thinking of getting a dog, Dr. Bassett suggests spending time with a pet at a friend's house or even in your home for a few weeks, if possible, to determine how you might react to that breed.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.
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