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Why does carpet cause allergies in some people?

Ugh. Who wants to think about all these allergens hanging out in your carpet?
Ugh. Who wants to think about all these allergens hanging out in your carpet?
HowStuffWorks

Every day, when you get home from work, you shed your shoes and jacket, and plop down next to the TV on your comfy shag carpet. Before you can exhale the stresses of the day, you go into a sneezing frenzy. Come to think of it, whenever the couple across the street comes over for dinner, your buddy joins you in a coughing fit while his wife looks bewildered at the two of you. What's going on?

The culprit is most likely right under your nose. Or your feet. Carpet is a virtual magnet for allergens like dust mites, pet dander, mold spores and other potentially aggravating proteins. Allergens are antigens, typically proteins, that provoke allergic reactions like coughing and sneezing in people with hypersensitive immune systems. Allergies can be triggered by many things found in your home such as carpet, which may contain 100 times more allergens than hard floors [source: e-healthy-homes].

The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) defends its product, claiming that carpet fibers actually trap allergy-provoking substances like dust and pollen and prevent them from circulating in the air where you're more likely to encounter them. While this may be true for those of us blessed with more tolerant immune systems, medical professionals often advise people with severe allergies to remove wall-to-wall carpeting.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America agrees with the CRI: There are indeed more allergens on surfaces than in the air, but, the organization adds, the slightest movement can disturb them. That means that whenever you sit on that shag carpet, you're sending all those allergens airborne where they can circulate for several hours [source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America].

Allergens trapped in carpet are especially troubling for families with small children. Children's immune systems are more sensitive to foreign substances like the ones found in carpet, and they spend a lot of their time closer to the ground. So while a 6-foot-9-inch (2.1 meter) basketball player might not worry that 1 square meter (11 square feet) of carpet can average 67 grams (2 ounces) of dust, your crawling child might object. In fact, an infant could end up swallowing 10 grams (0.4 ounces) of that dust daily [source: Green Guide]. That's approximately three saltine crackers worth. Yuck.

Find out what's behind all the sneezing next.

Carpet Allergens: Mites, Mold and More

Dust mites burrow deep into a carpet's fibers, depositing large amounts of waste that provoke allergies.
Dust mites burrow deep into a carpet's fibers, depositing large amounts of waste that provoke allergies.
David Scharf/Getty Images

Just about anything can find its way into the welcoming fibers of your carpet. Dust mites and pet dander are two major sources of some of the most aggravating allergens, but other irritants such as dust, mold, dirt and pollen tracked in from outdoors regularly build up as well.

If you have a persistent allergy, then you're probably no stranger to dust mites. These microscopic arthropods may be the most common cause of year-round allergies. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 20 million Americans are allergic to these little buggers. Technically, the dust mite's waste is the actual allergen, and they emit impressive amounts of it. Dust mites produce up to 200 times their body weight in waste each day [source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America]. Dust mites hide deep in carpeting, bedding and furniture, especially in warm, humid environments. Regular cleaning is no match for them either: 95 percent may remain even after vacuuming [source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America].

Cuter than dust mites, but perhaps no less aggravating to your allergies are Fido and Fifi. Your dog and cat, precious as they are, provoke allergies in 15 percent to 30 percent of people with allergies [source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America]. Their saliva, urine and other secretions contain proteins that are potential allergens, while their hair often traps dust, fleas and pollen that gets lodged in carpeting when the animals shed. The dead skin, or dander, of our furry friends also collects on surfaces like carpet. Pet allergens are especially problematic because they're sticky and cling to surfaces, and when they're disturbed, they hang out in the air for a long time. Even people who don't own pets get exposed to pet dander because it hitches rides on clothing.

Aside from dust mites and man's best friends, mold can be another common cause of indoor allergies. High humidity, spills that aren't cleaned up and leaky ceilings (or dogs) can all contribute to mold growth. Even shampooing or damp cleaning your carpet can promote the spread of mold and mildew if you don't dry it thoroughly. Whenever the source of the mold is disturbed, the spores are dispersed throughout the air.

Finally, anything that you might be allergic to outside could also become a potential problem inside. As you traipse into your living room after a nice walk through your yard, you may also be bringing in loads of pollen and dust. Where does that pollen and dust go? It goes right to the party that the dust mites and dander already have under way.

Learn how to break up this party on the next page.

Carpet Allergy Solutions: Carpet Removal, Vacuuming and Cleaning

While you may not enjoy vacuuming as much as this woman, your allergies will certainly thank you.
While you may not enjoy vacuuming as much as this woman, your allergies will certainly thank you.
Digital Vision/Getty Images

You've established that your lovely, cozy carpet is making you sneeze. What can you do, aside from ripping it out and starting over with hardwood floors? Unfortunately, if you have severe allergies, this may be your best and only option, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. If your allergies are less severe, you have a few alternatives to this spartan approach.

First, if you insist on carpet but haven't picked it out yet, do your allergies a favor by choosing one with a short, tight weave rather than long, loose fibers. The shorter the carpet fibers and the more tightly woven they are, the less inviting the carpet will be to allergens and the easier it will be to clean. Alternatively, you can select smaller machine-washable rag rugs or carpet tiles that can be washed in the hot water necessary to kill mites and other allergens.

If you're stuck with your current carpet, you can still try a few remedies to ease the sneeze. You probably already know that vacuuming is a good place to start. But what you may not realize is that there's actually a right and a wrong way to vacuum. Wrong: cursorily going over the carpet a few times a month with the model you inherited from your grandmother. Right: investing in a model with tight connections (to prevent allergens from escaping) and a built-in HEPA filter and vacuuming thoroughly one to two times a week. (A high-efficiency particulate air filter is designed to remove 99.97 percent of airborne particles.) If you have severe allergies, try to hand off vacuum duty to someone who doesn't or wear a dust mask.

Beyond vacuuming your carpet thoroughly and regularly, you should also have it professionally cleaned with either steam cleaning or dry cleaning every six months. Make sure it dries completely afterward so the dampness won't attract mold or mites. Cleaning up any spills promptly will also help to prevent the growth of mold. Another step you can take to reduce carpet allergens is to request that visitors entering your home remove their shoes to keep from bringing in foreign substances.

By following some of these recommendations listed here, you and your neighbors may make it through a meal without constant sniffles and sneezes.

To learn more about carpet and the allergies it may encourage, try some of the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "Indoor Allergies." 2005. (June 25, 2008) http://www.aafa.org/display.cfm?id=9
  • Carpet and Rug Institute. "Green Label/Green Label Plus." 2008. (June 25, 2008)http://www.carpet-rug.org/residential-customers/selecting-the-right-carpet-or- rug/green-label.cfm
  • E-healthy-homes. "Info about Dust Mite Control." 2008. (June 25, 2008)http://www.e-healthy-homes.com/dust_mite_control.asp
  • Green Guide. "Carpets." Jan.1, 2005. (June 25, 2008)http://www.thegreenguide.com/reports/product.mhtml?id=35
  • Howard, Joanna. "Carpet Tiles and Area Rugs." Green Guide. November/December 2005. (June 25, 2008)http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/111/carpets
  • Lundgren, Linnea and Jeff Wald, MD. "How to Allergy-Proof Your Home." HowStuffWorks. 2008. (June 25, 2008)http://health.howstuffworks.com/how-to-allergy-proof-your-home.htm
  • McRandle, P.W. "Carpets: Think Small." Green Guide. November/December 2003. (June 25, 2008)http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/99/carpet
  • Pennybacker, Mindy. "Rethinking Carpet." January/February 2001. (June 25, 2008)http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/86-87/pennybacker1