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  • By Lisa Jevens

How to Sleep When Plagued with Allergies

Do you suffer from daily sneezing, sniffling, runny nose, watery eyes or clogged sinuses? You could be one of the millions of people with allergies.

But what you might not realize is how your own bedroom can be the cause of poor sleep and severe daytime allergy symptoms.

“People don’t often know that mattresses and pillows are allergen attractants. Dust and dust mites collect in your mattress and pillow over the years, which can have a profoundly negative effect on your quality of sleep,” says Steve Stagner, CEO of Mattress Firm, a mattress and bedding store with 1,700 stores across the country.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, dust mites are the main allergy trigger in a bedroom. These tiny creatures are barely visible to the human eye, but their feces and exoskeletons are major triggers of allergies and asthma. These nasty little pests feast on sloughed-off human skin cells and thrive in pillows, mattresses and bedding.

Other allergens found in the bedroom include pet dander, dust, mold and cockroach leavings, which can also make their way into bedding. Fortunately, there are ways that you can protect your bedroom with items that can help alleviate allergy symptoms.

“The bedroom is probably the most important place in the house — it’s where most people can reduce allergens in the home,” says Alicia Elkin of the AAFA. “People spend one-third of their time there.”

Since the bedroom is where you need a cleaner, more hypoallergenic environment, one of the first things you should do is to get rid of your old mattress and pillows, says Stagner.

“We remind customers that pillows should be replaced every two years and mattresses every eight years,” he says. You can determine the age of your mattress by checking its tag. If it’s more than eight years old, you are sleeping on accumulated dust, sweat and dead skin.

In general, people with allergies should remember to purchase mattress and pillow protectors to create a barrier between allergens and sleep surfaces. Although no material is immune from collecting dust mites and dust, synthetic materials such as memory foam have been proven to collect significantly less dust than other sleep surfaces,” Stagner says. He advises customers to let a salesperson know they have allergies when shopping for bedding.

Once you buy a new mattress and pillows, ask about special covers designed to provide barriers to dust mites and other allergens. The National Institutes of Health recommends encasing mattresses and pillows in special dust-mite proof covers. Experts agree these covers prevent dust mites from taking up residence and multiplying in your bedding.

Technically speaking, mattress encasements are six-sided, whereas mattress covers are five-sided (the five-sided ones don’t cover the bottom of the mattress). Pillow encasements cover the entire pillow. “They have all been proven to reduce allergens,” Elkin says.

The National Institute of Health also recommends washing pillows (if uncovered), sheets, and blankets once a week in water hotter than 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Removing bedroom carpeting, stuffed toys and pets from the bedroom also may help. When vacuuming, use a HEPA filter, which traps allergens better than a standard filter.

Obviously, when dealing with any medical condition such as allergies, it is important to consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis. For example, sometimes there is confusion between conditions such as allergic rhinitis and sinusitis.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergic rhinitis develops when the body’s immune system overreacts to something that typically causes no problem in most people, such as dust. The reaction can be seasonal or year-round. If you commonly experience sneezing, your nose is often runny or stuffy, or your eyes, mouth or skin often feels itchy, you may have allergic rhinitis. This is a condition affecting 40 million to 60 million Americans, according to the organization’s website.

In contrast, sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinuses — the small cavities inside our facial bones — which is often caused by bacterial infection, viruses or mold. Although this is different from allergic rhinitis, it can occur as a result.

Remember, you’re not alone if you suffer from allergies. “The number of people with allergies has increased dramatically over the past 30 years,” Elkin says. “A lot of people are trying to do something about it.”

This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune "Cover to Cover" section on May 18, 2015.

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