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Is Your Environment Making You Sick?

It’s that time of year when warmer weather returns and so do my patients with a whole host of symptoms and illnesses associated with their living environment! These can include allergic reactions to plants or to chemicals we come in contact with on a regular basis. I even see patients with upper respiratory illnesses caused by their air conditioners and dehumidifiers!

Environmental illnesses send hundreds of people to their doctors or emergency rooms every spring and summer with mild to severe allergic reactions to something in their daily living environment. Let me share with you some of the most common exposures in our immediate environments that tend to bring patients in with itchy skin rashes, upper respiratory distress, stomach upsets and headaches as well as what you can do to treat and/or prevent them.

Plant Allergen Reactions

I can’t tell you how many patients I see every spring and summer with a case of the “itchies”, a skin rash caused by handling flowers, grass, or weeds on their property. Usually the rash appears on their lower legs, arms, or face. This type of reaction is called contact dermatitis and can range from mild to severe with slight redness to severely inflamed skin that is badly itching, and fluid-oozing often seen with poison ivy or oak. If you’ve ever had a plant reaction such as this, you know how miserable and uncomfortable it can be.

What To Do:

If you are wheezing, feeling tightness in your throat, having trouble breathing along with a skin reaction, please get to a doctor or walk-in clinic immediately, as you could have a severe systemic allergy to the offending plant.

In the case of poison ivy or oak, if the reaction is severe with weeping blisters and intense itching, your doctor can give you a prescription steroid to stop the immediate reaction and lessen its course from the usual 2-3 weeks down to 2-3 days. If the reaction is milder, you may want to treat it yourself by taking a lukewarm soap shower to help open the blisters that form so the itch-causing fluid can drain. Applying refrigerated witch hazel mixed with a few drops of lavender oil will help dry out these oozing lesions and lessen the itching. This mixture also works well for the itching associated with mosquito or chigger bites.

Many plant allergies respond to cleaning the areas with witch hazel and applying Calamine lotion. Taking 1 tsp of Benadryl liquid will help with the itching and/or swelling.

It’s important to find out what caused the reaction as often times the second exposure can bring on a worse reaction. You will likely need to visit an allergist who can perform skin testing to common plants, grasses and weeds. Wear long cotton pants and socks, long sleeves and gloves while gardening or removing brush or weeds. Be careful not to rub your face while working as this transfers the offending agent to your facial skin.

If your cat or dog likes to lay in your garden or around weeds or ivy climbing up walls, wipe them down with a moistened baby wipe or pet wipe to get any plant oils off their fur which can be transferred to you by rubbing against you or jumping up on couches or beds.

Chemical Reactions

Spring and summer brings out the bug sprays, lawn fertilizers, pool chemicals, house paints, cleaning solvents like bleach and ammonia, construction adhesives, epoxy, etc. These agents contain strong chemicals like DEET, VOC’s (volatile organic compounds), urethanes, chlorine, and, often, toluene that need to be used with good safety precautions. Exposure to these chemicals can give you mild to severe symptoms ranging from crashing headaches, upset stomach, skin rash, heart palpitations, and upper respiratory reactions, depending on the level of exposure to them. Follow the directions on the containers and wear gloves and/or a respiratory mask in a well-ventilated area when applying.

Chemicals that go into pools, hot tubs, and outdoor water parks, like chlorine and other bactericides/fungicides can cause serious reactions like upper respiratory (wheezing, coughing), to skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, headaches, heart palpitations. Even gasoline we use in our lawnmowers, motorcycles, and go carts, can give us a bad headache, especially on a hot day as the vapors from the compounds in these products intensify.

What To Do:

If you’re wheezing and/or short of breath, vomiting, or have a pounding headache, dizziness, rapid heart beat after exposure to insecticides, pool chemicals, paint/cleaning solvents, adhesives, please get to a doctor immediately. Symptoms like these indicate a severe reaction and you need medical attention.

If your symptoms are milder, such as only skin irritation, and you are not in any immediate respiratory or other distress:

1. Take a cool shower with a mild soap and remove the chemical from your skin.

2. Rinse out your nasal sinuses with an aloe/saline spray.

3. Rinse your mouth with some warm water (don’t swallow, spit it out).

4. Rinse your eyes out with saline solution (same used for contact lens cleaning).

5. Drink several glasses of water with some lemon juice in it to help your liver more quickly process the chemical out of your body.

Air Conditioner/Dehumidifier Illnesses

As soon as we start turning on the AC and dehumidifiers is when I start seeing patients with upper respiratory conditions. Bacteria and mold spores which have been forming in AC window boxes, or dirty AC venting systems, blow bugs into the ambient air that people breathe and lodge in their sinuses and airways. Before long they can have an acute infection of the sinuses, sore throat, bronchitis and sometimes even pneumonia!

What To Do:

Keep window AC boxes tilted slightly backwards so any condensation that is in them has a chance to drain out at the end of their season. Keep the box covered tightly over the fall and winter so rain, leaves, snow, doesn’t have a chance to get down inside and grow bacteria and mold. Make sure filter screens are kept clean wipe down the screens and surrounding areas with an antibacterial cleaner, and spray the air vents with a good antibacterial household spray such as Lysol.

Keep central AC venting systems clean with regular vent cleanings. Be sure to change/clean any ceiling intake screens with an antibacterial cleaner.

Dehumidifiers – make sure you empty the water they collect on a regular basis and wipe collecting pan clean so it doesn’t have a chance to grow mold spores.

Aloe/saline nasal sprays can help wash out mold spores and bacteria from your nasal passages before they cause infections. These can be used safely a few times a day.

Sick House Syndrome

This situation can occur in any season, but happens most prominently in the late spring/early summer, especially if the weather has been very humid and/or rainy. Dangerous black mold can grow on dark basement walls, bathroom showers, wood paneling and fiber ceiling tiles and give off mold spores into your environment.

Similarly, dust (and their mites) can build up in a house. You breathe in these mold spores and dust mites and serious upper respiratory infections can ensue as well as neurologic disorders, chronic fatigue, aching joints, depression. These are some of the common aspects of sick house syndrome which affects many Americans and people around the world. Others include off-gassing of formaldehyde from materials like fiberboard in your home or radon gas emitted by your furnace.

What To Do:

Good housekeeping practices of dusting and general cleaning go a long way to prevent the type of illnesses that come with sick house syndrome. Use bleach (wear gloves and face mask), or bleach alternatives like lemon juice, to remove black mold wherever it grows in your house.

Replace mold infected wood paneling and fiber ceiling tiles as it thrives on wood and paper-derived building materials. Run a dehumidifier in the basement to dry out any moisture. Make sure there are no leaking pipes or windows, any possible way moisture could develop in the basement. Put a few daylight lamps in dark areas and run them for a few hours to discourage mold growth. Have your house inspected for mold even if you don’t see it anywhere, yet have the above-mentioned symptoms.

There you have just a brief overview of some of the most common environmental agents that can cause chronic and acute reactions and illnesses. They can be hard to overcome and deal with since they are part of your everyday activities in the environment around you. However, with a little common sense and preventative measures you can stay reaction-free from your environment and get back to enjoying the spring and summer!

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