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Cockroaches: A Crawling Asthma and Allergy Trigger
Creepy as it is to hear, cockroach saliva, droppings, and shed skin have been linked to asthma and allergy symptoms, the National Pest Management Association reminds us.
By Jaimie Dalessio Clayton
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The allergen behind your asthma or other allergy symptoms might be hiding beneath your kitchen sink. No, it's not a fragrant household product you used too much of while spring-cleaning. Here's a hint: This allergen has six legs.
We're talking cockroaches — specifically their saliva, skin, and droppings. Gross, but roaches are actually well-established allergy and asthma triggers.
"There can be non-allergenic triggers for asthma like exercise and cold, but typically it tends to be things that are in the environment," explains Jorge P. Parada, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine and medical director of the Infection Control Program at Loyola University in Chicago. "The leading trigger tends to be insect-related. It tends to be dust mites, these tiny little bugs that live in our beds and pillows and carpets and all sorts of things, and larger bugs we can actually see, like cockroaches."
Anywhere from 23 percent to 60 percent people with asthma living in urban homes are sensitive to the cockroach allergen, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).
Which Roaches Are the Troublemakers?
Most commonly associated with asthma and allergy symptoms are German cockroaches, says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs at the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Va. American cockroaches (affectionately nicknamed palmetto bugs) come in second.
How quickly a person reacts to cockroaches depends on the individual and a few other factors, Dr. Parada says. It depends on how sensitized the person is to the cockroach allergen, the infestation concentration level, and the quality of ventilation inside.
"Sensitization can take a few weeks or even months, so if you have no sensitization to cockroaches and they get in your house you might not see a reaction for some time," he says. "If you get a big infestation, you're already sensitized, and if the house is relatively sealed, you might have an asthma attack the same day."
Diagnosing a Cockroach Allergy
Not everyone whose homes have cockroaches invade will have allergy or asthma symptoms, because not everyone has allergies and asthma. But anyone suffering from wheezing, itchy eyes and nose, or a scratchy throat should visit an allergist or immunologist to determine what's causing the symptoms. It's not normal to feel that way, even in the middle of spring.
If you have these symptoms year-round, it's more likely your trigger comes from inside your home.
"Allergens in the house tend to have more steady state with less seasonality," says Parada. The caveat, he says, is that people seal up windows and doors during the summer and winter to run air conditioning and heat, respectively. Poor ventilation during those seasons ups the chances of reaction to indoor allergens, like cockroaches.
Keeping Up With Cockroaches
Cockroaches make themselves house guests in cities across the country — not just New York, which has a reputation as roach heaven — predominantly in urban areas and southern regions of the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They're everywhere. "It doesn't matter where you live, unfortunately," Henriksen says.
More often than not, the first sign cockroach infestation is seeing a roach scurrying across the room. In cases of severe infestation, Henriksen says you might see droppings around cracks and crevices where roaches have been hiding.
At that point, it's definitely time to call an exterminator.
Preventing Cockroach Infestation
You might be surprised to learn that most German cockroaches get inside the house by latching onto things you bring inside yourself, like boxes and grocery bags. (Eww.) American cockroaches, says Henriksen, are more often found in sewers and outdoor areas, so they might crawl in under a door.
The most important step you can take to keep your home cockroach-free you probably learned in kindergarten: Clean up your crumbs. Practicing good sanitation habits — like vacuuming and fixing leaky pipes under the kitchen and bathroom sinks — helps, too.
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