Surviving the sneezin' season: Which allergy products work? - Experts discuss air filters, spray and more
By MSNBC contributor
msnbc.com

If you have chronic allergies, you’re probably willing to try any new product that comes along in the hopes of stifling your sniffles, sneezes and watery eyes. And there’s no shortage of products — a multimillion dollar industry offers a wide range of devices and concoctions that promise to ease your suffering. But which ones really work?

The answer depends in large part on what you’re allergic to, says Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, an allergist and professor of medicine at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. “The products that we recommend are allergen-specific,” he says. In other words, a product that helps people with cat allergy may do nothing whatsoever for hay fever sufferers.

So before you product shop, find out exactly what you’re allergic to. Pollen, dust mites, cockroach, cat and mold are the most common offenders.

Once the allergen has been identified, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to combat the allergy, including which products, if any, may help.

“Avoidance is the gospel of allergy,” says Dr. John Costa, an allergist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “If you can avoid, you won’t react.” This means you may not need products that help you live with allergies if you can eliminate or greatly reduce the source of your troubles by trading mite-infested carpet for tile floors, getting rid of mold at its source or finding a nice new home for Fluffy.

“Once you’ve done everything you can do to reduce allergen exposure,” Costa says, “then some of these products can become an effective way to help out.”

Here’s what works, what doesn’t, according to experts:

Air filters. Though often advertised as a near cure-all for a range of allergies, that’s not the case, says Platts-Mills. “Air filters are not a major part of controlling dust mite allergen,” he says, “but they’re an important part of controlling cat or dog allergens.”

The reason is that animal dander is often airborne whereas dust mite allergen (which comes from their droppings) is only in the air for brief periods when dust is stirred up, such as by vacuuming. Dust mites don’t fly.

Air filters also aren’t typically recommended for ragweed or other plant allergies. Instead, it’s advised that hay fever sufferers close up their homes and run an air conditioner that recirculates indoor air, thus keeping the pollen-laden air outside.

When looking for an air filter, experts recommend choosing a high efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter. These can be purchased as stand-alone units that can be placed in the bedroom or other commonly used rooms of the house or as attachments to your air conditioner or furnace. The severity of your allergy will dictate how many filters you need.

Sprays and powders. Many exist, but experts say those containing tannic acids work best. Dr. Richard Weber, a senior staff physician at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, says tannic acid breaks down animal dander as well as dust mite and cockroach allergen in your carpets and furniture.

Because cat dander is such a potent allergen, though, sprays may not work in households with more than two cats, he noted. And since tannic acid may stain, it’s not recommended for light fabrics.

Other products that contain benzyl benzoate may offer some help against mite allergy, particularly the powders that are sprinkled on carpeting and then vacuumed up, according to Platts-Mills.

Face masks. You may look funny wearing one, but some experts say these devices can help people with hay fever who have to work outdoors, or people with dust mite allergy who are cleaning house.

Masks come in the plastic surgical variety and the more high-tech models with air filters attached. The latter is probably more effective, says Platts-Mills.

Dehumidifiers. Costa says a dehumidifier is a wise investment for people with dust mite or mold allergies who live in humid areas where these allergies can be a major problem. “Mold and dust mites require humidity to grow,” he explains, so by taking moisture out of the air (an air conditioner can also help here), you halt their spread. Dehumidifiers can be particularly helpful in reducing mold in damp basements.

Mattress and pillow covers. Since dust mites burrow deep in beddings and stuffed furniture, using specially designed covers that do not allow mite allergen to escape is one of the most important steps you can take in reducing exposure, says Platts-Mills.

Encasings designed to combat allergies come in airtight plastics and various other “vapor permeable” materials that allow some air through but not the allergen. “The real issue is comfort,” he says. “We think they’re all probably equally effective against dust mites.”

These covers may also help people with cat allergy because mattresses and pillows are a reservoir for cat allergen. However, it’s best if cats are kept away from sleeping areas.

Special vacuum products. “The vacuum cleaner will spray more allergen into the air than it takes up,” says Weber. So if you’re allergic to dust mites, cat or cockroach, it’s a good idea to look for special-made double vacuum bags or vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters attached, he advises. “Double bags work pretty effectively,” he says.

Washable toys. Stuffed animals that harbor dust mites can be a particular problem for children with allergies because they can’t be washed. The GUND toy company now has a line of stuffed animals that can be run through the washer to destroy allergens.

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