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Special to msnbc.com
updated 3/24/2004 4:41:45 PM ET 2004-03-24T21:41:45

Like a warrior girding for battle, Paula Gillis pops her allergy pills, spritzes her nasal spray and dons a dust mask before starting to clean. Without that armor against dust and molds, Gillis will wheeze and itch. Her nose will run and her eyes water.

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While spring cleaning can be daunting to anyone, it’s a ritual fraught with respiratory peril for those with allergies to dust mites, molds and animal dander. Each sweep of the dust rag can propel particles of allergy-promoting proteins into the air.

But experts say there are ways – such as those used by Gillis – to make the big clean a little more tolerable.

First, they counsel, if you’re also allergic to plant stuffs, start cleaning early in the spring, before trees and grasses start poofing pollen. That way, you can throw open all the doors and windows without worrying about outdoor allergens suffusing the air inside.

This is a strategy used by Gillis, a Folsom, N.J., resident.

Good ventilation goes a long way to help clear the air once you start cleaning under the carpets and digging through those piles of pack-rat plunder, says Dr. S. Michael Phillips,  a specialist in allergy and immunology and a professor of medicine and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

'You’re going to be stirring up reservoirs for molds, animal danders and dust mites," Phillips says. "So, you will want ventilation to be as optimal as possible."

Fending off dust bunnies
Experts also suggest people don a dust mask before dusting or vacuuming.

That will help protect you from allergens pumped up into the air, says Dr. Marc Riedl, a clinical instructor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.

Learn how to treat allergiesRiedl also suggests people dust hard surfaces with a spray polish. The polish -- whether it is sprayed on the rag or on the surface to be cleaned -- reduces the amount of dust blown into the air.

"It’s much better than dry dusting, which sends dust into the air and then the nose and lungs," Riedl says.

And as you move furniture and start to vacuum dust bunnies that have cowered in corners for months, make sure that you’re sweeping the detritus up into one of the newer type of bags, such as a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) bag.

"You need to use a HEPA bag," Phillips says. "Otherwise the finer material will blow through the bag all over the house."

When it comes to carpet cleaning, it’s best to hire a professional, Phillips says. "Studies have shown that if you do it yourself -- by renting a little steam cleaning machine -- it’s not very effective," he explains. "In general, it’s worthwhile to get a professional to come in with a strong chemical system or one of the very, very hot steam systems."

Phillips also suggests spending time on upholstered furniture. Dust mites feed on bits of shed human skin. And "that favorite couch could be full of your skin and dust mites," he says. "So it’s useful to target sofas and chairs."

When it comes to bedding, there are a couple of tried and true methods.

One might want to take a cue from the Europeans, Phillips says. They take their bedding out and beat the dust out of it. If that’s not an appealing option, then you should make sure you wash your bedding with hot water, Riedl says.

In the dark
If your cleaning urge drives you down to the basement, you might want to pay special attention to molds that may have collected there.

Learn how allergic reactions occurRiedl suggests cleaning moldy surfaces with a diluted bleach solution. The same product will useful in cleaning kitchen cabinets and bathroom surfaces, according to the California allergist.

If household pets are included in the spring cleaning repertoire, you need to follow a few simple rules.

First, don’t brush Fido or Fifi in the house. You’ll just spread dander everywhere.

Second, don’t get carried away with bathing. If you bathe pets too often you can actually make your allergies worse, Phillips says. In the case of dogs, that’s because frequent bathing can make your pet’s skin dry, which will result in more flakes of skin -- which is what you are allergic to -- to spew into the air.

And studies have shown that baths for cats don’t justify the scratches you will receive, Phillips says.

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