Are you sensitive to dust, pollen and other allergens? Don’t forget that many common allergies can also lurk in your office too. We spoke to Lindsey McManus, Deputy CEO of Allergy UK, and Dr Alasdair Wright to find out some top tips on how to keep your office allergy free.
How common are allergies?
We often associate allergies with the outdoors, where pollens and spores are free to spoil summer days for those sensitive to them. But the truth is that we are exposed to allergens (any substance that causes an allergic reaction) everywhere – even in our offices and workplaces. And allergies are very common.
In fact, according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients Associations, by 2015 50 per cent of Europeans will have allergies.
In a survey last year, carried out by the charity Allergy UK, they estimated that at least 5.7 million people could be allergic to their workplace. Ninety five per cent of the people taking part in the survey said they had experienced a range of symptoms, including nasal problems, eye conditions, breathing difficulties and skin irritations. And 27 per cent said the office environment made their symptoms worse.
Allergies in the workplace
Workplace allergies don’t just make sufferers feel awful; they are a problem for business too. The survey found that 14 per cent of sufferers took between four and ten days off work as a result of their allergies, affecting their company’s productivity as well as their employees’ well-being.
“The most common allergic conditions (not including those triggered by food) are perennial allergic rhinitis, which is really all-year-round hay fever, and asthma,” says Lindsey McManus, Deputy CEO of Allergy UK. Other common disorders include eczema and seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (which affects up to 25 per cent of the population).
The most common triggers of indoor allergies include dust mites, fungus spores, animal dander (the dead skin that pets shed) and other substances that are found in many offices, such as mold growing on the top of plant pots or in other damp areas, and grass and tree pollens carried in on colleagues’ clothes.
If you are allergic, your body responds to contact with an allergen as though it is a harmful substance. It produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E to fight off the allergen – the same response it would use to fight off infections.
This causes a reaction which produces the symptoms you feel each time you come into contact with that allergen. For example, histamine is a chemical that your body produces during an allergic reaction. It makes your muscles tighten, including those in your airways, and this can make breathing more difficult.
Other chemicals produced through an allergic response can cause different symptoms, such as itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, runny nose, coughing and wheezing. If you are allergic to molds your allergic response may trigger eczema.
Managing your symptoms at work
There are things you can do to manage your symptoms in the workplace. But before you try any medications you should talk to your doctor. They will be able to prescribe the most appropriate treatments.
Antihistamines are very well-known allergy medications that work by stopping histamine from working. It’s best to take them before the allergen gets into your system, but they do work if taken afterwards.
Nasal decongestants can ease that blocked-up swollen feeling you can get in your nose when you have hay fever. They work by reducing the swelling in your nasal blood vessels – a common symptom of hay fever. However, they are only effective for up to a week.
If your eyes are swollen and itchy because of hay fever it can help to splash your face gently with cool water, but be careful not to rub near your eyes when drying.
If you have eczema, emollient creams and lotions can help. They create a protective barrier on the top layer of your skin, and can calm and soothe dry and itchy skin.
The best advice is to see your GP as they should be able to advise you on the most effective treatment for your condition, and will ensure it doesn’t react to any other medication you’re taking.
Expert tips for keeping your office allergen free
“If you are an allergy sufferer it is important to minimize your exposure to workplace allergens,” says GP Dr Alasdair Wright.
- Your computer: “Computer screens and keyboards are prone to collecting dust and tiny particles of food or sticky fluids, so make sure you wipe these clean twice a week.”
- Desk clutter: Try to avoid cluttering your desk and wipe around papers, books and desk equipment twice weekly. “The soil or gravel in real or artificial office plants is a common place to find molds so move these away from your desk. And don’t leave old cups of coffee or juices lying around, as these are also breeding grounds for molds.”
- Damp/mold: “If you are a hay-fever or mold fever sufferer then keep windows closed to reduce the pollen/mold levels in your office, especially on still, warm days when the pollen/mold counts are high.”
- Carpets: “If carpets and upholstery are vacuumed daily there shouldn’t be any problems.”
For more information about different allergies, visit our Allergy Centre or read our lifestyle features and fact sheets titled ‘How to combat hay fever’ and ‘Indoor allergies’.