9 Ways to Improve Your Home's Air Quality, According to an Allergist

Photo-illustration: Samantha Shin
Photo-illustration: Samantha Shin
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You probably don't want to think about it too hard, but your home can be littered with germs, allergens, and bacteria — even if you're super diligent about your cleaning habits. In fact, the Latine community suffers from some of the highest rates of asthma and are more likely to visit the emergency room for asthma. There are tons of unexpected offenders within your home that may have a hand in causing everything from allergies to illness to stinky odors.

Tania Elliott, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI, a double board-certified health professional who specializes in internal medicine and allergy/immunology, says that poor indoor air quality can lead to both allergy and asthma attacks, and viruses and bacteria in the air can cause varying illnesses. "Long term, it can even lead to irreversible lung disease, depending upon what is in the indoor air," she says. Read on as we dive into the most common — but maybe overlooked — perpetrators in your home that contribute to illness, along with Dr. Elliott's go-to tips for keeping you and your family healthy.

Common and Lesser-Known Indoor Pollutants

Some of the more common indoor allergens and pollutants might not surprise you (think: household pests like cockroaches and mice, pet hair, dust mites, and indoor mold). Bacteria, on the other hand, can be less obvious. According to Dr. Elliott, bacteria is extremely happy in moist, humid environments, places in your home with high foot traffic, deep in your carpets, and in poorly-ventilated areas. She says that the top five areas in your home that are likely accumulating illness-causing bacteria are your carpets and rugs, your dishwasher, your washing machine, your toothbrush holder, and your bedding.

Dr. Elliott often connects bacteria to other unsuspecting sources, such as food in the bedroom, especially when kids are covertly eating it in their rooms (this can result in cockroach and mice attraction or rotting crumbs left in crevices), or mold accumulating from moisture trapped underneath bathroom and kitchen sinks. Even seemingly harmless items, like an abundance of decorative pillows, curtains, and stuffed animals, are dust mite havens. Cigarette or marijuana smoke, wood burning fireplaces, and gas stoves can also contribute to poor indoor air quality.

What might not come as a surprise is the amount of bacteria and viruses that are thrown into the air when you flush your toilet. However, you might not know that your pillowcase and sheets can contain more bacteria than your toilet seat. A study from mattress brand Amerisleep found that after one week, pillowcases and sheets contain between three million and five million CFUs (colony-forming units [of bacteria]) per square inch, which means that pillowcases washed a week ago have over 17 thousand times the number of bacteria as a toilet seat.

And finally, a huge daily contributor to indoor air quality: Your own breath. Airborne diseases are most commonly spread through small respiratory droplets in the air. Sure, sneezing and coughing are what we think of most often as spreading disease into the air — but it's the little, everyday things like laughing, singing, and simply exhaling that contribute to what's going on in your home's air.

Addressing the problem areas in your home and adopting some new practices can make a huge difference in your home's indoor air quality and your own health. Whether you start with Dr. Elliott's no-cost tips or decide to invest in a HEPA vacuum, there are plenty of ways to breathe better at home.

Tips For Reducing Indoor Pollutants

Ditch your carpet: While some people are drawn to carpet for its plush feel, carpet can be a hotbed for bacteria to thrive. Dr. Elliot recommends swapping it for hardwood flooring, if possible. If that's not in the budget, vacuuming once a week with a HEPA vacuum can help keep dust mites and pet allergens under control.

Manage harmful bacteria and viruses in the air: Dr. Elliott recommends using a product like Lysol's EPA-approved Air Sanitizer, which is the first and only spray that can remove 99.9 percent of bacteria and viruses in the air when used as directed. It also helps to remove odor-causing bacteria and comes in six scents to fit your mood.

Introduce a HEPA air purifier: Dr. Elliott notes that these air purifiers are useful for targeting pet and outdoor allergens. HEPA air purifiers are a must if you live in an area where there are frequent fires or a big city where the air quality is often pretty poor.

Focus on your bedding: According to the Amerisleep study, the most common bacteria found in your sheets and on your pillowcases include the type that causes pneumonia, gram-negative rods, which can lead to antibiotic resistance according to the CDA, and bacilli, the type of bacteria known to cause food poisoning. Dr. Elliott suggests washing your sheets at least weekly on the highest heat setting to kill lingering dust mites and bacteria.

Don't wear shoes in the house: "Ask people to take their shoes off when they come into the house and make the home a shoe free zone to limit the amount of virus, bacteria, and allergens coming into the home," Dr. Elliott says.

Disinfect your toilet regularly: Research has shown that every time you flush your toilet, it causes an aerosol plume that can travel five feet or more, spreading germs to floors, walls, sinks and other surfaces in a bathroom. It was previously thought that just closing the lid was enough to combat the plume, however new research says this isn't enough. According to a report in the American Journal of Infection Control, the only effective way to reduce the spread of virus is to disinfect the toilet, toilet water, and nearby surfaces.

Monitor your home's humidity level: Bacteria's ideal breeding ground is in a moist environment (the same goes for illness-causing mold growth), so the sweet spot for your home is between 30 to 50 percent humidity. If it surpasses that range, bring in a dehumidifier to lower the humidity level.

Create a cleaning cadence: In addition to vacuuming weekly, Dr. Elliott recommends cleaning out your vents monthly or bi-monthly. She says that even something as simple as leaving dirty dishes in the sink can cause bacteria to begin growing. Check under your sink for leaks and signs of mold, and make sure to disinfect your dishwasher and washing machine regularly. The same goes for your household textiles like curtains, throw blankets, and kid's toys. Dr. Elliott's trick: "Put their favorite stuffie in the freezer over night once a week to kill off the dustmites."

Open your windows: "I always remember my mother having music on and having the windows open while cleaning, no matter what time of year," Dr. Elliott says. She recommends opening windows for at least an hour a day to improve air circulation and to always open them while cooking and cleaning.