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Carpet and Allergies: What's the Truth?

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If you look around the internet for information on whether carpeting is good or bad for allergies, and what you should do to minimize any problems, you'll notice that the "experts" disagree on a number of points. Some say that carpet traps allergens and can aggravate symptoms. Others say the science (which seems to be thin and uncertain) shows that by trapping allergens the fibers keep them out of the air, and so help alleviate symptoms.

Experiences differ among those with allergies. Some report having great relief after removing their carpet. Others don't notice any difference. Most aren't sure whose advice to take. One allergy sufferer explains in a forum that her doctor has told her to never steam clean the carpet, because once there is moisture introduced there will be mold spores growing underneath forever. Carpet cleaners will tell you that this isn't true, and installers who remove carpeting note that they do not see any mold growth under rugs that have been cleaned many times over the years.

If you have an allergy problem, you are left with a lot of questions. Whose advice can you trust? Should you have hardwood or tile flooring instead? If you go with carpet, should you steam clean it? And what kind of carpet should you have installed? The answers may not be the same for everyone, but with some common sense and a bit of experimentation you can still work out what works best for you.

Hardwood or Tile for Allergy Sufferers

If you have hardwood or tile floors, the dust and allergens that rest on it are easily launched into the air with the slightest movement. Theoretically you can keep the dust and dander to a minimum with a hard surface, but having less of these substances in the home does not help much if there are more particles in the air. If you do have a tiled or wooden floor, there are a couple things you can do.

First, clean often using a damp mop or rags. Ideally the cleaning should be done by someone else, so you do not breath in any of the materials that get stirred up and enter the air. Second, use rugs at doors. They can catch a lot of material that would otherwise get dragged in on shoes. An area rug or two is not a bad idea either. The advantage of rugs over wall-to-wall carpeting is that you can take the rugs out of the home to shake them out or wash them, and they can be cleaned more thoroughly. Have someone other than yourself remove, clean and replace them if possible.

If you have the opportunity to live in or visit for at least a few days homes with hard surface floors and carpeting, pay attention. See which one causes more symptoms. But be sure to watch for any other common things you are allergic too (like cats), so you do not confuse the matter. If hardwood or tile gives you some relief you might want to consider having any carpeting in your home removed.

Carpet for Allergy Sufferers

There is apparently some evidence that carpet prevents dust, dander and other allergens from getting into the air as easily. This is perhaps especially true if you do not or would not keep up on the cleaning of a hard-surface floor. What kind of carpet should you choose? Your best bet is likely going to be nylon, but here is where you need to experiment a bit.

One of the easiest ways to test carpet for its suitability is to use your nose. Unless you have severe allergic reactions that are dangerous, put your nose to those samples. You might have to try different fibers at different times, even on different days, to be sure there is no confusion as to which causes what reaction. As mentioned, nylon (or possibly polyester) is probably the best choice, but you are going to test brands as well.

The reason different brands can affect you in various ways is that different substances are used as stain treatments and different glues are used. You will probably want to get one that is labeled low VOC. That's an acronym for "volatile organic compound," which can include formaldehyde, benzene, and other substances that might aggravate your symptoms. You want to choose a product that does not cause any reaction when you have sniffed it a bit.

Get something that has short pile and is dense. Look for a density rating of 2,000 or higher. If you can't find a rating, bend a sample. Low-quality less-dense carpet will show the backing when bent. Thick short carpet will be easier to keep clean.

Ask about options for padding. If you have multiple allergies you want something that will not have heavy chemical emissions.

When the carpet is installed, open the windows and turn on bathroom exhaust fans for a few hours to promote the movement of air through the home. Open the windows daily for a while if weather permits. All carpeting is likely to emit some chemical compounds, so air out the indoor space as much as you can in the first week after installation.

Cleaning Carpet to Alleviate Allergies

Regular cleaning can help prevent the buildup of allergens in the carpeting, but there are some precautions you should take. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. Even with the best filter, some dust and other substances can be introduced into the air when vacuuming (even just from the movement of the wheels across the fibers), so its best to leave the home and have somebody else clean for you if your allergies are severe.

Steam cleaning is probably the best method to use for the occasional deep cleaning. Ask your cleaner to do extra "dry strokes" in order to remove as much moisture as possible. Then use a fan or two to move the air around afterward, so the fibers dry as quickly as possible. If you take these precautions mold or mildew growth should not be an issue.

Other Tips

Do not lay on your carpet. Although carpet does tend to trap some allergens and so prevent their introduction into the air, a few particles will always be thrown up when the fibers are stepped on or otherwise touched. These may settle down before reaching your nose--if your nose is not too close to the floor.

Have a "no shoes" policy in your home. This will keep the dirt and dust from outdoors from collecting in your living space. It also prolongs the life of your carpet.

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