How to Detect an Allergen and Remove It From Your Home

An allergen is a substance that causes an allergic reaction. Some examples of common allergens are dust mites, cat dander, and pollen. Sometimes people can have severe allergic reactions to these substances that can lead to breathing problems (including serious asthma exacerbations) and even death. More often, they cause bothersome symptoms such as runny nose, congestion, and fatigue.

Woman sneezing from flowers in her home.
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Detecting The Allergen That's Making You Sick

There are two ways to detect an allergen that is making you sick: through skin-prick testing, considered by many experts to be the gold standard, and through immunoglobulin E (IgE) blood testing. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Robert Reinhardt, MD, associate professor at Michigan State University and senior director of medical and regulatory affairs and quality management at Phadia, U.S., Inc., both of these types of tests are underused by physicians who are more likely to simply prescribe medications to treat allergy symptoms.

Skin-prick testing involves first abrading the skin with a needle and then placing a series of drops of allergen extracts such as pollen, dander, molds, etc., onto the place where the skin was pricked. Then, you'll wait 15 minutes to see if a reaction develops in comparison to a positive control (histamine) and a negative control (saline).

Specific IgE testing, (also called ImmunoCAP), can help your doctor diagnose the allergens that are causing your symptoms. IgE is an immunoglobulin, a protein that acts as part of our immune system, detecting foreign substances such as bacteria ​and allergens. IgE tends to overreact in response to an allergen; this results in an allergy.

"Eighty percent of asthma and allergy care is given by primary care physicians and pediatricians. These doctors are overwhelmed by clinical guidelines. Asthma guidelines alone are over 400 pages. Education around guidelines is often provided to doctors by pharmaceutical companies so they become well versed in administering medications but not in other aspects of the guidelines," Dr. Reinhardt says. If you suspect you have allergies or asthma, you should consider being treated by an allergist or pulmonologist as the two disorders can be closely related, known as the asthma and allergy connection.

So what does all this mean to you, the patient? It means you may have to request these blood tests from your physician. Dr. Reinhardt recommends that patients become familiar with the results of their lab results. "Patients should know their IgE levels the same way that diabetics know their blood sugar or some people know their cholesterol," he says. Once you've discovered what you are allergic to, you can start to eliminate it.

Removing the Allergen From Your Environment

Your physician should be able to assist you with methods for eliminating or reducing the amount of exposure to the allergen that triggers your symptoms. There are many options. You can also buy several types of commercially available products to test your home for common allergens and molds. By taking samples of the dust around your home, you can receive a detailed report telling what allergens are in your home. The kit in conjunction with blood testing can tell you what allergens need to be removed from your home.

Keep the Bedroom an Allergy Safe Zone

According to Dr. Reinhardt, the most important place to get rid of allergens is in the bedroom. Most people spend six to 12 hours in the bedroom sleeping, so it is important to make this a "safe zone." But removing allergens is sometimes easier said than done.

Let's say you have a pet dander allergy. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, this might mean that you just need to keep your pet out of the bedroom, or you may need to regularly deep-clean the room thoroughly to get rid of residual pet dander, including all of your bedding. Steam cleaning and dry cleaning may be necessary. If these measures fail, and your allergies don't improve, it may be necessary to find a new home for your pet if you're really suffering—let your doctor be your guide.

Removing other allergens may be easier (at least emotionally, anyway): dust mites, for example, can be controlled by diligent cleaning, again, especially in the bedroom. This includes curtains, blinds, and all bedding. Some sources recommend encasing your bedding in a plastic or rubber wrapping. It is also important to dehumidify your home, since dust mites thrive in humid environments.

Mold can be difficult to remove. Mold grows in moist areas, it may have grown in an area where you have had water damage from plumbing problems or flooding. Sometimes it just grows because the air is so humid, again a dehumidifier may be helpful. The first step in removing mold is to make sure that everything is dried out. For mold growth larger than 10 square feet, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says homeowners should follow the guidelines for removing mold in their article on mold remediation in schools and commercial buildings.

A Word From Verywell

We have covered only some of the more common allergy/asthma triggers. Once you find out what your trigger is, you will need to talk with your doctor and research ways to decrease exposure to the trigger and thereby improve your health.

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Article Sources
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  1. Siles RI, Hsieh FH. Allergy blood testing: A practical guide for clinicians. Cleve Clin J Med. 2011;78(9):585-92. doi:10.3949/ccjm.78a.11023

  2. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Pet allergy.

  3. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Dust allergy. Updated February 2, 2018.

  4. Environmental Protection Agency. Mold cleanup in your home.

Additional Reading
  • Reinhardt R. Interview. August 2009.