Your home should be a sanctuary where your health and safety are protected, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Even if you’ve been conscientious about keeping your home clean and well maintained, it’s still possible to overlook issues that put your health at risk.
To complicate matters, many of the symptoms caused by indoor pollutants and other household health threats mimic a lingering cold or simple fatigue. Because of this, it’s important to know what health risks can occur in your house so you can prevent them or correct them if they do show up.
Dust mites are microscopic insects found in even the cleanest homes. They live in soft furnishings, bedding, and carpeting, and feed on dead skin particles shed by people and pets. Because they thrive in warm, humid environments, your bed is an ideal spot for these bugs.
Not everyone is sensitive to dust mites, but for those who are, a buildup of mites leads to symptoms similar to hay fever such as sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and a cough. If you have asthma, you might also notice wheezing and an increase in asthma attacks.
While it’s impossible to get rid of dust mites entirely, there’s a lot you can do to keep the population down. Change your bedding once a week and wash it at 140 degrees. Then put it through your dryer’s spin cycle until it’s completely dry to kill off any lingering mites.
Use anti-allergy covers on your mattress and pillows to create a barrier between you and the mites. Dust weekly with a microfiber duster and keep clutter to a minimum. If possible, get rid of your carpets and stick with hardwood or tile floors instead.
If you have seasonal allergies, you already know pollen isn’t something you want in your home. Even so, more pollen could be sneaking in than you realize. Worse yet, because your home is an enclosed environment, pollen can build up to even higher levels than outdoors.
To keep pollen out, avoid opening windows in the early morning and after it rains. Pollen counts are highest at these times. If you want to freshen your air without cooling, run your air conditioner on the “fan only” setting. This circulates your air through the A/C air filter, which removes airborne pollen. To trap as much pollen as possible, chose a filter with a MERV of around 10 or 11.
Wipe your feet before coming in and remove your outerwear in the entryway to avoid bringing in pollen. Vacuum weekly with a HEPA filter vacuum. Because pollen clings to your hair, either wash your hair daily or wrap it before going to bed to keep pollen off your pillow.
Cockroaches are relatively common in hot, humid climates, but they should never be ignored due to the health threats they present. People with allergies and asthma are at particular risk of worsened symptoms thanks to the allergens in roach saliva and body parts. Roaches also spread bacteria, including salmonella.
To discourage these insects, take out the trash frequently, wash the dishes after every meal, and never let food debris linger on your counters or floors. Roaches are attracted to water, so repair leaky pipes or faucets that might be allowing water to pool somewhere. Keep food in tightly sealed containers.
If you’ve seen even one roach, you have an infestation. Roach glue strips, gel bait, and roach hotels can get rid of minor infestations, but if the bugs keep showing up, invest in an exterminator.
Mold does more than discolor your walls and ceilings. The spores it releases end up in your respiratory tract, where they can worsen asthma and allergy symptoms.
Those with allergies to mold experience wheezing, watery eyes, and skin rashes. Even in otherwise healthy people, mold exposure increases the risk of upper respiratory tract infections. Not surprisingly, mold is a factor in sick building syndrome.
Look for patches of mold on the corners of your bathroom and kitchen ceilings, behind furniture and under rugs, under shelves, and inside cabinets. Also, check inside the accessible parts of your air ducts.
If you find mold growth, your home is either too humid or lacks ventilation. Take steps to reduce your indoor humidity, such as using your bathroom and kitchen vent fans correctly, covering pans when you cook, and taking shorter, cooler showers. If airflow is a problem, talk with a specialist about improving your home’s ventilation.
Any appliance that burns fuel, including natural gas, propane or wood, produces carbon monoxide (CO) gas as a by-product of fuel burning.
Normally, this colorless, odorless gas is vented outdoors, but if an appliance malfunctions, the gas can leak into your home. Because exposure to carbon monoxide is potentially deadly, it’s critical to have properly placed carbon monoxide detectors throughout your home.
Sometimes, however, a malfunctioning appliance leaks small amounts of CO that the detectors don’t pick up, but that is still enough to affect your health. This low-level CO exposure causes symptoms such as frequent headaches, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. Because these warning signs are so similar to flu symptoms, they’re easy to overlook.
If you feel better when you’re out of the house and worse at home, one of your appliances could be to blame. A carbon monoxide leak is an issue best left to a professional.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals emitted as gases from a wide range of materials. The group includes formaldehyde, benzene, acetone, and toluene. They can be found in many household products including carpets, upholstery fabrics, paint, and varnishes as well as cleaning chemicals, air fresheners, cosmetics, and dryer sheets.
Too much of these chemicals in your indoor air can leave you with irritation to your eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. To minimize your exposure to VOCs, use natural cleaners such as vinegar and baking soda and avoid scented products.
When you plan home improvements, look for low-VOC paints, carpet, and flooring. When possible, let new upholstered furniture air out outdoors in dry, sunny weather for a day after you bring it home.
Good ventilation is equally important. Opening the windows helps, but for a more efficient way to improve your home’s airflow, consider having a whole-house ventilation system installed.
Fiberglass and cotton-polyester furnace filters can’t trap VOCs. If you want to remove these chemicals from your air, you need an air cleaner designed to absorb gaseous pollutants. These typically contain activated-carbon filters.
When your heating and cooling system can’t maintain a consistent temperature throughout your home, your body is forced to constantly adjust to the temperature as you move from room to room.
While this isn’t a major threat to your health, it does place stress on your body, weakening your immune system and making you more vulnerable to colds and flu. Extreme temperature changes can even exacerbate heart and respiratory conditions.
Older HVAC systems are prone to issues that cause wide temperature swings and create hot and cold spots around the house. If your system is more than 10 years old, look into upgrading to a newer model that uses a variable speed motor to ensure more consistent temperatures.
Most of the issues that threaten your health at home are relatively simple to correct or, ideally, prevent. Clean weekly to keep dust and pollen at bay, keep your appliances and plumbing well maintained, and ensure sufficient ventilation, and you stand a good chance of preventing the most common ways your home could make you sick.