If you're allergic to springtime pollens, your nose already knows that the season came in with a bang this year. Chances are, you've been huddling in your house, windows closed, hiding from those airborne motes of misery.
But what if, inside your house, you're still sneezing and wheezing, your eyes are still itching and tearing, your nose is still dripping and your throat is still tickling?
For reasons that may have given your distant ancestors a leg up on survival, you might have a hyperalert immune system that operates in chronic overdrive, churning out warrior cells -- called IgE antibodies -- that are all pumped up to do battle against invaders that don't bother most other people.
And just what ancient enemy of mankind is your body struggling against?
Possibly, the dust mite.
Pinhead-sized critters that feed on human skin scales, dust mites thrive on the nourishment to be found in your bedding and upholstery. In turn, they excrete particles that dance merrily in sunbeams and do a number in your nose.
Or maybe what's getting to you -- or into you, to be precise -- are mold spores, flying out from some dark, damp and hidden place in your humidifier or air conditioner. Or animal dander, the sticky skin scales of your house pet -- probably your cat. Or even, heaven help us, cockroach excrement, "a recent area of study," according to Robert Hamilton, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and director of the Dermatology, Allergy and Clinical Immunology lab (DACI) at the Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center.
Scientists at the DACI lab will conduct tests on messy mixes of hair, fuzz, dirt and debris that people vacuum out of their carpets and upholstery and send in for analysis.
For those who need to know what's afloat in their homes, the DACI lab sends out a dish-like dust-catcher along with a special attachment for the hose of a regular vacuum cleaner. You send it back, dish of dust and all, along with a filled-out form requesting a search for a specific allergen.
At $36 for a one-allergen search, plus postage, and $25 for each additional allergen analyzed, this test is not for everyone, Dr. Hamilton points out. You don't want to do it if you're not allergic to one of the four allergens the test discloses.
You'd be wasting your money if, for instance, your dog is something to sneeze at. While cats all produce the same allergen in their dander, dog allergen is breed-specific, and a test that separates collie stuff from Lhasa apso stuff from spaniel stuff has not yet been developed.
It's even possible that your symptoms aren't allergic at all: You could be reacting to irritants, like smoke or chemical fumes, which can cause legitimate grief without setting off the IgE antibody battle of true allergy.
At DACI, "we prefer to deal with allergists," says Dr. Hamilton, since they're likely to know whether an analysis is reasonable, and which allergen to look for if it is. But they'll work directly with patients: If your symptoms suggest you're affected by one or more of the four allergens, call the DACI lab at (800) 344-3224.
"Removing the allergen from the patient is the cheapest way to deal with an allergy," says Dr. Robert Hamilton, allergy expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Removal can be quick and easy, or heartbreakingly difficult and expensive. Depending on what you're allergic to and how far you are willing to go to avoid it, you might have to:
* Find another home for your pet. But don't expect immediate relief: Cat dander can persist for several months.
* Vacuum frequently and thoroughly.
* Use a specially formulated tannic-acid based cleaning product on your carpet.
* Remove carpeting, draperies and other dust-catchers, at least from the bedroom.
* Install an indoor air filtration system and/or a dehumidifier: House mites thrive when the humidity is higher than 50 percent or 60 percent.