Does vacuuming make allergies worse?

A doctor shares her insights on helping to reduce allergy symptoms within the home.

According to Allergy UK, 1 in 3 of the population (around 20 million people) are living with an allergic condition. While common allergies include food and medicine, environmental allergies are also becoming more common.

Dust mites, mould, animal fur or skin and household chemicals are all known allergens that are found to cause reactions such as sneezing, itchy eyes, coughing and rashes.

And just because that pesky pollen lives outside your home, doesn’t mean it can’t still affect you once you shut the door, especially if you have animals bringing it in on their fur.

A woman vacuuming around her dog who is sat on a carpet to illustrate does vacuuming make allergies worseCredit: Shutterstock
Vacuuming is essential for keeping your house clean – but can it hinder or help allergies?

What causes allergies?

It’s a family affair

Any allergy, be it to a food or something environmental, is the body’s immune system responding to normally harmless substances. The immune system identifies a threat, which causes a reaction in the body. These range from itchy skin and sore eyes to anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.

Dr Helen Evans-Howells, an allergy specialist who helps parents deal with allergies, says family history plays a major part in whether you will have an allergy or not.

“The biggest component of any allergy is still genetics,” she explains.

“But when we look at any allergies, there is also something to be said about the sort of increased pollution around that’s probably increasing respiratory disease.

Allergies, such as those to dust mites and pets, can be passed down through generationsCredit: Shutterstock
Allergies, such as those to dust mites and pets, can be passed down through generations

“We also know more about the gut microbiome – the happy bacteria that live in our gut – and we’re definitely seeing that there are factors that can influence allergy forming, but probably with some sort of other trigger.”

While allergies tend to stay with you for life, Evans-Howells says there are various points when they can improve or get worse, especially for women.

“Your allergies can change at any point, particularly when we’re looking at environmental allergies, which can change as our hormones change,” she says.

“Sometimes as you start your period, you’re pregnant, or going through the menopause, it can get better or worse.”

Does vacuuming help allergies?

Frequent vacuuming is your friend

A study in 2010 by market research firm Mintel found that a third of sufferers have changed their lifestyles to reduce allergic reactions, with 11% using special bedding and another 11% keeping their home extra clean.

But does cleaning, especially vacuuming, help relieve allergy symptoms? Overall, it seems that when it comes to environmental allergies, such as dust and pollen, your vacuum is on your side.

“Vacuuming is the mainstay of trying to lower the allergen load in your house, so you should be considering vacuuming very regularly,” says Evans-Howells.

Woman cleaning wearing a mask and gloves to illustrate does vacuuming help allergiesCredit: Shutterstock
If you have allergies and have to clean, a mask and gloves can help

However, she does advise that if you’re the allergy sufferer and are pushing the vacuum around, this could temporarily worsen your symptoms.

“If you are the person who is responsible for the dusting and the hoovering, then you are kind of exposing yourself to it,” she says.

Wearing a mask may help, but someone else doing the cleaning is the only way to really avoid the allergens.

Don’t forget that allergens can live elsewhere in your home, too. Dust mites love soft furnishings so vacuuming your sofa and chairs, as well as washing any removable covers, will help reduce their presence.

If you have pets, pay particular attention to curtains and blinds, where pet fur can build up as they pass by or have a nosey out of the window.

What kind of vacuum cleaner is best for allergies?

Strong suction and HEPA filters help

When it comes to buying a vacuum cleaner that can help with your allergies, Alice Lynch, in-house cleaning expert with the Henry vacuum brand, says it’s worth spending time to find the right one.

“You need to ensure you have the right tools with strong enough suction and dust-free emptying to avoid creating even more dust,” she says.

“Using vacuums that lock in dirt and don’t release large dust clouds that aggravate allergies is essential.”

HEPA filters

Evans-Howells says the most important element of an allergy-friendly vacuum cleaner is a HEPA filter, which filters out even tiny particulates.

“The evidence would be that they would be the better ones to choose,” she says.

While many of the best cordless vacuums carry some kind of filter, not all of them have a “real” HEPA filter that reach this allergy-friendly standard. Samsung’s Jet 90 cordless vacuums, for example, come with an ultra fine HEPA dust filter that captures 99.999% of micro dust and allergens.

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To ensure the filter keeps those allergens at bay, it’s important to clean it regularly. Ideally, get someone else to do this in case the debris triggers your allergy.

How do I know if my vacuum has a HEPA filter?

HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters trap and remove tiny particles, rather than pushing them back into the air. A vacuum with a HEPA filter, for example, will not only trap dust mites but will also pick up their waste and eggs.

To qualify as a HEPA filter, it must remove at least 99.8% of particles 0.3 microns in size or bigger. These figures, and the serial number, will be printed on the filter.

Bagged or bagless?

There is a train of thought that bagged vacuums are slightly better for allergy sufferers. When you empty the vacuum, the dust and debris are all neatly contained within the bag, which means it’s less likely to irritate allergy sufferers.

The Henry Allergy vacuum goes one step further, featuring self-seal locks on all its dust bags to seal dirt, dust and hair inside, so you have minimum contact with potential allergens.

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Evans-Howells says that while this may help allergy sufferers, the newer bagless vacuum cleaners tend to have better filters.

If you suffer from an allergy, she suggests getting someone else to empty the dirty vacuum bin to avoid any reaction. If that’s not possible, a face mask and gloves can help.

Allergy UK gives a Seal of Approval award to those products, such as vacuum cleaners, that have been independently tested and proven to reduce or remove airborne allergens and other contaminants from around the home.

More allergy reduction tips

7 tips to help reduce your exposure to allergens

Tip 1: It’s important to use the right technique when vacuuming to avoid stirring up allergens further. Not sure how to vacuum properly? Vacuum in straight lines, forward and back, going slowly to prevent agitating the dust further. Put all your energy into pushing the vacuum, rather than when pulling it back, as this ensures you don’t leave any dirt behind.

Tip 2: As well as vacuuming, Allergy UK recommends steam-cleaning your carpets and soft furnishings once a month. Pollen can live in the carpet for up to three months after exposure and pet dander (skin and hair) can stay around for years. They recommend Vaporetta steam cleaners for sanitising and removing dust mites.

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Tip 3: Damp dusting is a better choice than using a dry duster, advises Evans-Howells.“It will help pick the dust up rather than spread it around,” she says.

Tip 4: Swap your flooring. It’s probably not economical to suddenly rip out your carpets, but if you are thinking about updating your flooring, Evans-Howells recommends ceramic or wood flooring for easier cleaning. It’s also not attractive for dust mites.

The same goes for curtains: swap them for roller blinds. And if you’re in the market for a new sofa, choose a leather cover.

Tip 5: In the bedroom, Allergy UK advises putting allergen-proof barrier covers on all mattresses, duvets and pillows, which will help reduce allergy symptoms. These should be breathable and should completely enclose the item.

Tip 6: Open the window. Evans-Howells says the UK climate is perfect for dust mites as they hate extreme temperatures.

While it might be excessive to move to a colder or hotter country, opening the windows can help by reducing moisture – something the little blighters love – and creating air flow throughout the house. This will also help if you suffer from mould allergies.

For hay fever sufferers, it’s best to keep windows and doors closed during the high-pollen season to prevent it entering the house. Evans-Howells says it’s important to also clean down any animals who go outside as they can bring pollen back in on their coats.

“I’ve got two puppies and every time they go outside now they bring stuff in,” she says. “My eyes start swelling again and I’m really anxious then as I don’t want to touch the dogs until someone’s washed them.”

Tip 7: Vacuum more if you have a pet. Lynch says that depending on how you’re your pet moults, you may need to vacuum every day to help with allergens.

“During the transition from winter to summer, pet owners often experience excessive hair in the house, which if not dealt with quickly can get into the strangest of places such as the oven, food and even people’s mouths,” she says.

“Keep on top of it to stop it spreading.”

For more useful tips for helping to reduce allergens in your home, check out Allergy UK’s factsheets.

Jayne Cherrington-Cook

Written by Jayne Cherrington-Cook she/her

Updated:

Jayne is the Senior Editor at Saga Exceptional. She cut her online journalism teeth 24 years ago in an era when a dialling tone and slow page load were standard. During this time, she’s written about a variety of subjects and is just at home road-testing TVs as she is interviewing TV stars. A diverse career has seen Jayne launch websites for popular magazines, collaborate with top brands, write regularly for major publications including Woman&Home, Yahoo! and The Daily Telegraph, create a podcast, and also write a tech column for Women’s Own.

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