Meet the Allergens

Introducing the biggest sniffle-and-sneeze triggers

If you have allergies, indoors or outdoors, the culprit’s an allergen. The list of possible allergens is long. One may not bother you a whit while another sets you off in seconds. Chances are, several bother you; having one type of allergy makes it more likely that you have others.

The best way to live well with allergies? Identify which allergens trigger your symptoms—and avoid them.

Take the first step: Meet the allergens. What makes you sneeze might be hiding right under your nose. Literally.

Inside your home

You keep your home clean and orderly. You moved the sunflowers to the patio. You keep windows shut tight during allergy season. Where could allergens be hiding? Try your bed. Your walls. Your sofa. The main sneeze triggers:

  • Dust. This messy mixture contains tiny particles of soil, plant material, human and animal skin, hair, fabric fibers and insect parts. House dust is the most common type of indoor allergen.
  • Dust mites. These microscopic arachnids (similar to spiders) make their home deep within carpeting, upholstery, mattresses and boxsprings. The mites themselves aren’t allergens but their droppings cause problems when stirred into the air. And yes, they probably love your pillow.
  • Dander. With pets, hair and fur have nothing to do with it. The problem is actually dander: tiny flakes of skin shed from animals, especially dogs, cats and birds.
  • Cockroaches. Sound gross? It's probably worse than you think. Almost every home in the United States has cockroaches living in it, even if you never see them. The allergen is the debris: tiny particles of cockroach droppings, saliva, eggs and outer coverings.
  • Mold and mildew. These airborne fungus particles originate in damp indoor areas such as bathrooms and basements. While mildew is often visible, mold can be invisible to the naked eye and grow unseen behind walls and under floor tiles.

Because they have a nice, steady, sheltered climate, indoor allergens are not particularly seasonal. So you need to be on your guard year round. One simple effective approach: Open your windows. Letting fresh air into the house can go a long way. Just don’t do it if you have hay fever and it’s hay fever season!

Which brings us to the great outdoors.


The big player for outdoor allergies is pollen. Pollen is the round or oval microscopic particles that plants use for fertilization and reproduction. But there are many kinds of pollen. Birch tree pollen might leave you unharmed while ragweed’s a drag. Or vice versa. The most common outdoor allergens:

  • Tree pollen. Trees are usually the first plants to pollinate each year.
  • Grass pollen. Grass pollens are one of the main culprits during the summer allergy season.
  • Ragweed and other weed pollen. Ragweed is by far the most common type of outdoor allergen. It affects 75 percent of those with seasonal allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Association of America. It usually starts in late summer. Unfortunately, the various varieties of ragweed grow throughout the United States.
  • Molds and mildews. Molds and mildew are both indoor and outdoor allergens. They’re not pollens. Look out for them when working around soil, vegetation and rotting wood.

Most outdoor allergens are seasonal: Tree pollen early in the year, grass pollen in late spring, ragweed and other weed pollen in summer and fall. In warmer climates, outdoor mold spore growth peaks in midsummer.

During allergy season, weather matters, too: You’re safer venturing outdoors on rainy, cloudy or windless days because pollen does not move around as much during these conditions. While avoiding outdoor allergens isn't always easy, it can be done!

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