Do you have cat allergies? It doesn't mean you have to skip visits with your feline-loving friends and family.
With a little preparation, you should be able to go anywhere without ending up with itchy, red eyes, a tickly throat, sneezing, or even shortness of breathall of which happen when people allergic to cats encounter cat dander.
Cat dander is more than just cat hair; it's skin cells, saliva, and other proteins that can cause your body to release histamine, an immune system protein that's ultimately to blame for your miserable symptoms.
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"If I know I’m going to somebody's house who has a pet, I just take a pill 20 minutes before I go," says Alejandra Soto, 36, who has been allergic to cats, dogs, horses, and pretty much any animal with hair since childhood.
Because she doesn't always know whether someone has a pet before she visits, Soto adds, she always has an antihistamine in her purse.
"It's really rare that I'll be exposed and it will catch me by surprise," says Soto, who directs communications and outreach for the New York City Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
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Don't choose the soft chair
Steer clear of upholstered furniture, which is a hotbed of dander in households with cats. Not only do felines like a comfortable seat as much as the next mammal, the soft upholstery can trap dander.
Hard wooden chairs can't harbor as many cat allergens, so you're better off taking a seat there.
Even if you can't spot any cat hair on that comfy looking couch, don't go there.
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Non-drowsy antihistamines like loratidine (Claritin) can help keep you symptom-free and alert when you're visiting a household with pets that make you sneeze.
Angel Waldron, a spokesperson for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), who's also allergic to cats, takes loratidine every day when she's visiting feline-friendly family members.
If you're planning a long visit to a home with cats, you may want to ask your allergist about starting medication a few weeks beforehand.
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Practice hand hygiene
Two things that help fight colds or fluwashing your hands and not touching your faceare also a good idea if you might come into contact with cat allergens.
Tempted to give your friend's cat a quick scratch behind the ears? Don't. Even minimal contact can trigger an allergic reaction.
What's more, if you touch any surface and transfer dander to your face or eyes, it can trigger symptoms. So wash your hands before touching your face.
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Have air filter, will travel
If you often visit friends or family with cats, but they don't have a HEPA air purifier in the room where you'll be staying, you may want to consider investing in a portable version.
Small but powerful, HEPA air purifiers are available for under $200, and you can even use them to clean the air in your car.
"A HEPA filter is just great to have anyway," Waldron says. "It's good with pollen, it's good for mold, it's good for dust mite allergens."
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When you get home
Even after a short visit to a household with cats, you should wash your clothes in hot water to avoid bringing allergens into your home.
"When I'm home, everything I've brought, I need to wash thoroughly," Waldron says. The water should be at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
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If you have a kitty
Getting a furry pet can mean misery if you have allergies, and most allergists advise against it.
But if you just can't give one up, you can reduce your exposure to pet allergens. Ban pets from your bedroom, and cover any heating or air conditioning vents with cheesecloth, to reduce allergens. The AAFA suggests that you scrub bedroom walls and woodwork because allergens can stick to them; get rid of your pet's favorite pieces of furniture; and rip up wall-to-wall carpet. If you must have carpets, choose ones with low pile and steam clean often. Toss throw rugs into the wash and clean with hot water.
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HEPA at home
Installing air cleaners on heating and air conditioning systems will help keep circulating allergens to a minimum, the AAFA advises; to be most effective, air cleaners should have HEPA filters and should be on for at least four hours a day.
You should also choose a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and wear a dust mask when you vacuum. Use a damp cloth for dusting, so you can avoid stirring up allergens. You'll also want to keep your home as clean and tidy as possible, because allergens can lurk in dust and clutter.
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Take care of your cat
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) suggests speaking with your veterinarian about your pet's diet. Animals that eat a balanced diet will have healthier skin, making them less likely to shed dander and hair, the group says. The AAFA also suggests having a non-allergic family member brush your pet outdoors, and putting someone else in charge of cleaning your cat's litter box.
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An allergy "cure"
If you're truly committed to keeping your cat, you may want to consider immunotherapy. Popularly known as "allergy shots," this treatment involves a series of injections with the allergen that's troubling you. The process takes up to 5 years, though, and early on requires that you visit the allergist every two weeks.
While it doesn't work for everyone, immunotherapy can wipe out some people's allergy symptoms completely.