Cold and flu season is hitting hard this winter, and your challenge is twofold: First, making sure that cleaning your house isn’t making you sick. Second, if you’re feeling ill, figuring out if your symptoms originated from the flu or from your house.
After all, many of the symptoms of the flu—coughing, sneezing, fatigue, congestion, runny nose, sometimes a fever—can also be the result of allergies from dust being kicked up or commercial cleaners being used improperly.
But yes, your indoor environment and its microscopic inhabitants could be making you sick. Here’s where they’re hiding:
1. Heating and Cooling Systems
Problem: When your HVAC system cools your home, it also leaves traces of water in the ducts, creating the perfect breeding ground for mold and bacteria. That microbial growth can trigger respiratory issues like headaches and coughing.
Solution: Stay on top of your monthly air filter replacements. Hire professional cleaners to clean out your air ducts every couple of years, and ask for their suggestions for your heater’s cleanest and most efficient operation.
2. Indoor Leaks
Problem: You can’t see the leaks in your HVAC system that are causing mold growth in your home, and that’s bad news for anyone in your household susceptible to asthma and allergy-based breathing problems.
Solution: Moisture is your enemy. Think dry, dry, dry. Dry closets, dry pipes, dry basements, dry attics. Clean and dry where any moisture, even a little drop, has accumulated. Remember, you’re only seeing, and cleaning, surfaces; what’s not visible can make things even worse. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask a professional. A good plumber or roofer has been through this situation many times.
Problem: The comfy upholstered chair you’ve had for decades. That big pillow your sister gave you when you bought what became your kid’s go-to TV couch. The only mattress you know you can sleep on. These are a few of your favorite things. Especially if you’re a dust mite. Microscopic dust mites see us humans as large, soft bags that provide them with warmth and humidity. Dust mites live everywhere people live. Most people can safely ignore them, but each dust mite is a little time bomb for someone with asthma or allergies, triggering strong, debilitating reactions.
Solution: Cycle your linens every week. Sheets and towels should be washed in the hottest possible water, and thoroughly dried. Give furniture, throw pillows, carpeting and curtains a weekly vacuuming and dusting. If your household includes someone who’s sensitive to dust mites, look into specialty mattress and pillow covers specifically designed to keep dust mites out.
4. The Bathroom
Problem: If an older mattress is like Times Square for dust mites, the bath mat in front of your shower is Hawaii. Bath mats provide a warm, wet breeding ground for bacteria, mold and dust mites. When your shower’s over and you step on that bathmat, you’ll be drying yourself off while standing on dust mites. Oops.
Solution: First, towel off while you’re still standing in the tub or shower. (Slippers might come in handy here.) Don’t sprinkle cornstarch on yourself—dust mites love the stuff. And make sure washcloths, towels and bathmats get nice hot baths of their own in your washer, followed by a thorough drying, at least once a week.
5. The Refrigerator
Problem: Frost-free refrigerators have an electric coil in each freezer that melts frost every four hours. The melted water drips into a pan and then evaporates, thanks to warm air from the refrigerator’s compressor. But if that pan is filled with dust, your refrigerator will blow that dust into your home.
Newer refrigerators may not have a tray, but the coils on the back of the machine need to be dusted off regularly. Shut off the refrigerator’s power before undertaking this, and be sure to wear gloves to avoid injury from the sharp edges of the coils.
Solution: Give your refrigerator a regular cleaning, along with the wall and floor behind the refrigerator. Check your manufacturer’s instruction manual to determine whether there is a tray and to learn the best cleaning methods.
6. The Vacuum Cleaner
Problem: We all need a vacuum cleaner to suck up the allergens. But your vacuum could be spewing them all back into the air. The best vacuums have HEPA filters (for High-Efficiency Particulate Air). These filter more than 99 percent of the particulates in the air. But beware of the “HEPA-like” filter, which doesn’t do much more than release particles into the air without filtering.
Solution: Double-check your vacuum for a HEPA filter. Make sure your cleaning service uses a HEPA-filter vacuum, as well, so your home isn’t being contaminated from allergens in previous houses.
7. Cleaning Products
Problem: Conventional cleaning products, like the ones you’ve been buying for years, may cause eye irritation, headaches, breathing problems, and at worst, be carcinogenic. Many people clean with them, but they don’t take precautions against the harmful effects of commercial cleaning products.
Team Clean, the Philadelphia-based janitorial service, offers Green Clean solutions, which employ green cleaning best practices, including the use of safer and Earth-friendlier cleaning products.
Solution: Clean glass with a mixture of water and vinegar. Toss your abrasive scrubbing product and use baking soda instead. Soap and water can work just as well as a commercial cleaner for most surfaces. Alternatively, look for cleaning products marked “green” and be careful not to confuse “natural” products for those that are safer to use.
Founded in 1983, Team Clean, Inc. is a commercial janitorial services company in Philadelphia. Due mainly to the service focus and vision of its founder/president/CEO—Donna L. Allie, PhD.—the company enjoyed huge growth during its first two decades. By 1999, it was the fourth-largest woman-owned business in Philadelphia, and the Wharton Small Business Development Center identified it as one of the fastest-growing small businesses in that metropolitan area.