Indoor Allergens and You: Clearing The Air With Doctor Richard Mangi, Infectious Disease Specialist

For the past several years, companies have been doing everything possible to reduce dangerous viruses, mold spores, and bacteria in indoor air and exposed surfaces. As a result of the pandemic, we’ve been reminded about the importance of clean air. But this isn’t as easy as “set up a HEPA filter and go.”

Yes, HEPA filters are beneficial for cleaning the air, but they can take a long time to work and don’t clean surfaces. For those sensitive to indoor allergens, waiting for a HEPA filter to get the irritants out of their office or classroom can make their day unbearable.

But what are indoor allergens, and why should we be concerned about them? And, most importantly, what can we do about them? To help answer these questions, we spoke with Dr. Richard J. Mangi, former Chief of Infectious Diseases and Allergy Hospital of Saint Raphael, New Haven, CT.

Indoor allergens make the worst officemates.

Indoor environments contain microscopic protein particles that can cause allergies. Some people may be allergic to these particles. Unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid all indoor allergens. The people most affected are those in schools, churches, indoor event spaces, and offices. These are areas where viruses, bacteria, and allergen triggers have a higher density. No matter how clean your space is, you will likely come into contact with them sooner or later. But what exactly are indoor allergens? And are they something we should be concerned about? 

What are Indoor Allergens?

Indoor Allergens make the worst officemates

Indoor allergens are proteins that can trigger an allergic reaction in some people. Dust mites, mold spores, and animals are the most common indoor allergens. Breathing in these particles can cause your immune system to send out certain chemicals that can lead to symptoms such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, cough, or asthma. 

These particles are everywhere, including homes, cars, schools, and offices. However, certain places are more susceptible to indoor allergens. For example, if there’s an enclosed space with more than a handful of people, there will be more allergens. 

Has the pandemic impacted our indoor air quality? 

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Dust mites, mold spores, and animals are the most common indoor allergens

“Indoor allergens have always been a problem, but they might be more problematic now because people are spending more time indoors,” Doctor Mangi explained.

One thing the pandemic made us all learn is how to work from home, learn from home, teach from home – even provide healthcare without entering someone else’s home.

Of course, we’ve always spent more time indoors than outdoors, but confining ourselves to one space only increased the risk of exposure to indoor allergens.

When many of us went back to our workplaces, whether that was an office, retail store, school, hospital, or otherwise, we had to once again adjust to the atmosphere.

And even moving from one area to another can trigger a reaction all over again. Yet it’s not just allergens we need to watch out for. For instance, what do we do about mold?

Should you worry about mold in the air if you don’t have allergies or asthma? 

“Mold allergy can cause stinging eyes, coughing, wheezing, and other symptoms,” Mangi told us. “Those who are not allergic to these substances might still experience symptoms.’

Some molds produce mycotoxins, chemicals that cause irritated eyes, coughing, sneezing, and headache in some people. 

Managing these symptoms is important, but indoor allergens can also worsen other health problems. “People with asthma, for example, may find that their condition is more difficult to manage when they are exposed to indoor allergens of mycotoxins,” Mangi warned. Furthermore, “indoor allergens can also make people more susceptible to bacterial infections such as sinus infections and bronchitis.”

What about skin problems and infections?

We spend so much time thinking about breathing air that we forget that air can impact more than our lungs. As Mangi explained, “People with eczema may find that their skin condition worsens when they are exposed to indoor allergens, particularly dust mites.” 

Indoor air allergens and pollutants are most dangerous for children.

Indoor Allergens make the worst officemates
Indoor allergens are most common in schools, churches, indoor event spaces, and offices

Children are still building up their immune systems, making them far more susceptible to harmful particles in the air.

However, Doctor Mangi mentioned that his patients who are teachers also often have increased infections every fall.

“Schools are breeding grounds for viruses,” Mangi explained. “As soon as the school year starts, teachers and kids get exposed, bring a virus home, and everyone gets sick. Viruses are what you want to filter out as much as possible.”  

In addition, other medical conditions can worsen.

Allergies can worsen other medical conditions, including sinus infections, gastrointestinal disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, indoor allergens can be particularly difficult for people with multiple allergies.

Changing environments can also trigger indoor allergen sensitivity. 

“You’ll have someone who has been working in the same office for years; they move offices, and all of a sudden, they are sick all the time,” Mangi told us. “This phenomenon is called the ‘sick building syndrome,’ he continued. ‘The causes stem from allergy and mycotoxin exposure due to excess dust and mold spores from contaminated HVAC systems. Some schools are also ‘sick buildings,” another reason teachers are sicker during the school year.

How do you know if you have an allergy?

If you’re experiencing symptoms that indoor allergens might cause, your first step should be to see your doctor. If you have allergies, your doctor will likely be able to make a diagnosis after asking about your symptoms and doing a physical examination and allergy tests. 

“Your doctor may also recommend that you track your symptoms and the amount of time you spend in various places over a few weeks,” Mangi further detailed. “This can help pinpoint which indoor allergens you might be reacting to and help you determine if you need to take measures to decrease indoor allergens in your home [or workspace].”

How can we avoid indoor allergens?

So, how do we keep ourselves safe from the air we breathe indoors? There are three critical areas we need to remember.

Keep the air clean.

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PCO purifiers are the toughest defense against indoor allergens

When air is polluted, it can cause a variety of problems, including respiratory infections, asthma attacks, and other illnesses. Because of these risks, it’s essential to improve air quality.

One of the best ways to do this is to have an air filtration system. Almost all indoor areas are equipped with HEPA filters, but adding a PCO unit, such as the Puraclenz 750, can make a world of difference.

Mangi also reminds us that “you probably spend the largest percentage of the day’s 24 hours in your bedroom. So, the air in that room is the most important.”

Avoidance – the easiest treatment.

The best way to treat indoor allergens is to avoid them. This might sound not easy, but you can do it if you know what you’re looking for. Avoiding them can help reduce symptoms, particularly in people with mild allergies. Keeping indoor allergens under control can also help prevent asthma attacks in people with more severe allergies. 

Cleaning your home and workspace.

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Clean your space regularly to keep allergens at bay

You can start by taking a good, hard look at your house and where you work. If you find lots of indoor allergens (which you will, no matter how clean you are), you’ll want to take steps to reduce them. You can start by cleaning your space regularly.

Also, vacuum your carpets and upholstery at least once a week, and clean your windows and surfaces at least once a week. It is also helpful to add a dehumidifier to your home to reduce the amount of indoor moisture.

At your place of work, review the maintenance routines to see if they need to be, or can be, adjusted. But you can do small things between cleanings to make it better, such as keeping cleaning wipes and cleaning the surface of your desk once or twice a day. 

While all these methods will help, it’s important to remember that we can never achieve a 100% clean air rate. And not everyone will experience symptoms of indoor allergens, mold, and viruses.

But, as Doctor Mangi cautions, we must take measures to protect those with asthma and with weaker immune symptoms. We also want to prevent serious contamination. Whether for your bedroom at home or the dining area of an assisted living facility (maybe consider the P3000 for this), staying ahead of indoor allergens, mold, or other pollutants is key for healthy living.