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Are Carpets Good or Bad for Allergies?

Every day, when you get home from work, you shed your shoes and jacket, and plop down next to the TV on your comfy shag carpet. Before you can exhale the stresses of the day, you go into a sneezing frenzy. Come to think of it, whenever the couple across the street comes over for dinner, your buddy joins you in a coughing fit while his wife looks bewildered at the two of you. What's going on?

The culprit is most likely right under your nose. Or your feet. Carpet is a virtual magnet for allergens like dust mites, pet dander, mold spores and other potentially aggravating proteins. Allergens are antigens, typically proteins, that provoke allergic reactions like coughing and sneezing in people with hypersensitive immune systems. Allergies can be triggered by many things found in your home such as carpet, which may contain 100 times more allergens than hard floors [source: e-healthy-homes].

The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) defends its product, claiming that carpet fibers actually trap allergy-provoking substances like dust and pollen and prevent them from circulating in the air where you're more likely to encounter them. While this may be true for those of us blessed with more tolerant immune systems, medical professionals often advise people with severe allergies to remove wall-to-wall carpeting.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America agrees with the CRI: There are indeed more allergens on surfaces than in the air, but, the organization adds, the slightest movement can disturb them. That means that whenever you sit on that shag carpet, you're sending all those allergens airborne where they can circulate for several hours [source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America].

Allergens trapped in carpet are especially troubling for families with small children. Children's immune systems are more sensitive to foreign substances like the ones found in carpet, and they spend a lot of their time closer to the ground. So while a 6-foot-9-inch (2.1 meter) basketball player might not worry that 1 square meter (11 square feet) of carpet can average 67 grams (2 ounces) of dust, your crawling child might object. In fact, an infant could end up swallowing 10 grams (0.4 ounces) of that dust daily [source: Green Guide]. That's approximately three saltine crackers worth. Yuck.

Carpet has long been regarded as the enemy when it comes to allergies and asthma. Those living with asthma or allergy symptoms have historically been advised to remove all carpet in the home because carpet traps allergens. It is believed that this exacerbates the symptoms of these conditions. A great many reputable sources advise allergy and asthma sufferers to remove carpeting. Even the Mayo Clinic continues to make this current recommendation:

Carpeting can be a reservoir for allergy-causing substances (allergens) that trigger asthma. ... Hard-surface flooring such as vinyl, tile or wood is much easier to keep free of dust mites, pollen, pet dander and other allergens... ....Remove carpeting and use hardwood or linoleum flooring and washable area rugs. If that isn't an option, use low-pile instead of high-pile carpeting and vacuum weekly with a vacuum cleaner that has a small-particle or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Shampoo the carpet frequently.

However, over the last 20 years or so, some studies have challenged this view of carpeting as a problem for allergy and asthma suffers. While some of these studies are funded and promoted by the flooring industry itself, others are from reputable scientific sources and some suggest that carpeting can actually help allergy and asthma sufferers.

What Is the Reality?

The carpet industry has argued vociferously that modern carpet materials do not have the same performance characteristics as older carpets, and no longer pose the same health risks to allergy and asthma sufferers. There may be some merit to this argument. Most recent studies, including the NCBI's summary, do acknowledge that there has not yet been sufficient examination of how different carpeting materials impact health symptoms.

But on balance, the most recent independent scientific studies still support the long-standing belief that carpeting tends to collect the dust mites and other allergens that can cause allergies and asthma symptoms. Claims that the carpeting performs a service by holding these contaminants rather than allowing them to float in the air have not bee supported—rooms with carpeting tend to have morefree-floating allergens in the air than rooms with hard-surface floors.

Still, there can be considerable benefits to having carpeting as a floor covering, including its ability to muffle sound, improve the insulation value of a floor, and provide a cushioning surface that can protect against injuries from falls. Where carpeting is desired in an area used by allergy sufferers, it is best to follow the recommendations of the ACAAI (American College of Allergy, to use "low-pile carpets made of high density, low surface area fibers, and coated in fluorocarbon."

Cleaning is Essential

Of course, some maintenance of your carpet is required to be able to truly breathe easy. Regular, thorough vacuuming of carpeting is essential in order to remove these allergens from the environment completely. For cut-pile carpets, using a vacuum with a beater bar or powerhead attachment is most effective. (Do not use a beater bar or powerhead attachment on a looped style/Berber carpet.)

Most sources also recommend periodic deep shampooing of the carpeting in homes where allergy or asthma sufferers live.

Always Seek a Physician's Advice

Your doctor is the best source of information on how a flooring material may affect your allergies or asthma symptoms. Symptoms can be caused by a wide variety of substances, ranging from simple dust to chemical compounds in the air—or even by combinations of these substances. An allergy specialist is best qualified to tell you if carpeting is likely to irritate your allergy or asthma symptoms.

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