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If you've ever worried about scary things hiding in your bedroom, well, you may have been right. Bedrooms are prime territory for dust mites, mold and other allergens that can trigger asthma and allergies. Learn how to tame those monsters in this chat with pediatric immunologist John McDonnell.

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Allergens: The Real Monster Under Your Bed

Podcast Transcript

John Horton: Hello, and welcome to another Health Essentials podcast. I'm John Horton, your host. When you were little, remember how you used to worry about monsters lurking under your bed or in the dark corners of your room? Well, turns out you may have been onto something. Bedrooms serve as a prime stomping ground for dust mites, mold and a host of other allergens, a truly terrifying reality if you have asthma or allergies. These hidden irritants can make your life miserable. So how can you protect yourself and your family? That's what we're going to find out today from pediatric immunologist John McDonald. Dr. McDonald's one of the many experts at Cleveland Clinic who pop into our weekly podcast to share information that you can trust to live a healthier life. Now, let's go on a monster hunt and eliminate some pretty scary allergens.

Dr. McDonald, thank you so much for joining us today. It's great to have you on the podcast.

Dr. John McDonald: Oh, it's great to be here, John. Thanks.

John Horton: As you go about in your job as an immunologist, I'm guessing that you see a lot of people that have asthma and allergy issues. How do you go about trying to find the source of that for people?

Dr. John McDonald: Well, the first thing we always do is try to figure out, based on their history, what are their most likely triggers for their allergies or asthma. And then, once we get a sense of that, there's a variety of different tests we can do, including skin prick testing and blood testing and different kinds of asthma testing we can do, to narrow things down.

John Horton: OK. All right. Well, then, it sounds like, I mean, for the most part, when you go looking for those triggers, it leads us right into our main topic here, which is how bedrooms are a main source of some of those. Why is that? Why are bedrooms so high on that list, as far as places where they're hanging out?

Dr. John McDonald: Yeah, I think it's a couple things. One is that you spend a lot of your day in your bedroom, including when you're sleeping, and your immune system doesn't get a pass just because you're asleep. It still has to be dealing with allergens and things like that. So you're in your room a lot and some of the things in your room like the bedding and things like that are conducive to allergens kind of hanging out. And then, also different home allergy triggers, especially cats and dogs, sometimes are in the same room with you and potentially increasing the allergy burden in that place. So it's just a bunch of factors that kind of line up together to create a problem.

John Horton: You brought up cats and dogs. I mean, what are some of the main allergens that just get everything going?

Dr. John McDonald: Well, we think about allergens as being perennial or seasonal. And so, in terms of perennial, year-long allergens, cats, dogs, any kind of pet that you might have that sheds, is potentially a perennial allergen for you. Also, molds, dust, dust mite. There's two types of dust mites that people can be allergic to. And in certain environments, cockroaches can be a problem, and it's not an issue with cleanliness in the house, it's more just they're there and some people get allergic to them.

John Horton: I know I saw some studies, and you had mentioned cleaning because you think that you could just get rid of these, but I saw no matter how much you clean, I mean, odds are these are still hanging around somewhere in your house.

Dr. John McDonald: For sure. You could spend a whole bunch of money just randomly cleaning your house, doing your absolute best. But if you're not targeting the exact allergens you want to get rid of, it might not be as effective.

John Horton: Right. Well, let's talk about how we can target those then because obviously, we want to evict those allergens and not have them hanging around causing all these problems. We're looking at the bedroom. Let's talk about hypoallergenic bedding, which I know is obviously a big thing for people. Does that work?

Dr. John McDonald: Yeah, there's bedding that is designed, for example, to keep dust mites out, and there's evidence that that works. And we know that dust mites need a certain amount of warmth and humidity to survive, and some of that warmth and humidity comes from your face, for example, while you're sleeping on the pillow. So dust mite encasements are really good for people who have a dust mite allergy.

Also, some things like restricting the carpet use in your room. If you have a hardwood floor, from an allergy standpoint, it's much better to have a hardwood floor than a carpet where dust, for example, can hang in there.

Other things in your room is just keeping your window closed, especially if you're in a seasonal allergy kind of time of year where pollens might be blowing in through the window. You want to make sure that your window's closed.

And then other things that people try that seem helpful are using HEPA filters, that can help as well, and decreasing your humidity to less than 50 percent is pretty helpful, too.

John Horton: Wow. What does the humidity do? When you cut that down, how does that help?

Dr. John McDonald: It's mostly for dust mites. They can't survive unless it's very humid or at least above a certain level of humidity, which is why the only places in the world where there's no dust mites causing allergy problems are locations with very low humidity naturally. So by cutting the humidity down, it deprives those mites of the environment they need to survive.

John Horton: OK. We're looking at things that you can do. We like to give people some actionable items that they can take away from the podcast. What are some other things, especially with kids? I'd imagine stuffed animals could be a major spot for allergens.

Dr. John McDonald: Yeah. So especially the stuffed animals, a lot of times, I know in my house, I have some kids with a ton of stuffed animals in their bedroom, but if they were showing symptoms, we'd want to get those stuffed animals out of there. Washing the bedding weekly in hot water and drying it on a hot setting is an important thing, and that can help decrease the allergen burden. If you have a cockroach problem, there's insecticides and things like that that you can use. But the important thing is trying to decrease those exposures, but realizing that it can take time for that to happen. For example, a cat and dog will have, especially cats, even if you get rid of the cat, it'll be like six months or so with that cat dander and stuff still around in your environment.

John Horton: Yeah, it is amazing how long that can last. I know my wife has a big allergy to cats, and we had neighbors that had a couch that they had from an old house where they used to have a cat, and it was years ago, and she used to go over there, and every single time, she'd start sneezing. So, it's really that powerful.

Dr. John McDonald: For sure. Yeah, it can last a long time. They're very tenacious, some of these allergens. They just stick around forever.

John Horton: OK. You had mentioned stuffed animals, and I know you said as far as kind of removing them, I've had three kids and I know there were stuffed animals that there was no way I could pry them away. Momo the Moose was not leaving my one son. If you do have a situation like that, how can you, I guess, take the stuffed animal and maybe, I say treat it, take it to the stuffed animal hospital here? What can we do to get rid of the allergens?

Dr. John McDonald: I mean, potentially you could wash that particular animal a lot. You could see if there's any dust mite covers that might fit on it or you could just say, "Look, the kid gets one or two favorite animals. We'll do our best with those," but otherwise, the potentially dust-filled animals and things will be up away from the kid. Also, you want to verify that they even have a problem with dust allergy first. So before we would ever try to say take away the kids' stuffed toys, we'd want to know do they really have a dust allergy, where that's going to help or are we just being mean? And so that's where allergy testing comes in, to verify what your allergens are.

John Horton: Yeah. When should you go in and seek that sort of, I guess, that verified opinion and really find out what you're allergic to?

Dr. John McDonald: I think if you're using allergy medicine on a daily basis, especially if that medicine is not controlling your symptoms, it's reasonable to come in and see an allergist. We can test you whether you're on antihistamines or not. We have different strategies for testing. We can tell you what you're allergic to and then it can help you, even if you don't want to be on a whole bunch of medicine per se, it will help you to know because knowing is half the battle, and knowing you can get your house cleaned up the way you need to without spending extra money on things you don't need.

John Horton: All right. Dr. McDonald, before we say goodbye, is there anything else you'd like to add about allergies in the home or what you can do to combat them?

Dr. John McDonald: I think the main thing is getting tested if you're concerned you have an allergy to something specific, most likely we have a way to test for that, and getting that testing, preferably before you spend a fortune on cleaning up your house. Certainly simple things like washing bedding a couple times a week, I mean, you can start doing that right away. But for more expensive home remediation strategies, if you're pulling up carpet, for example and things like that, just come in and see us first, so we can do the testing and tell you what you're allergic to.

John Horton: Great advice, Dr. McDonald. Thank you so much for joining us today. Looking forward to having you back.

Dr. John McDonald: All right. Thank you.

John Horton: No matter how clean your house is, allergens are probably present, and that can cause major issues for anyone with asthma or allergies. Hopefully, these tips from Dr. McDonald can help you breathe a little easier while you're at home. Till next time, be well.

Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Health Essentials, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit clevelandclinic.org/hepodcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

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