7 common allergy triggers in the workplace

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Is it your colleague's strong perfume or a mouldy plant that's making you feel so miserable?
Is it your colleague's strong perfume or a mouldy plant that's making you feel so miserable?

Coughing, sneezing, feeling congested and unable to concentrate at the office? This might all be due to common allergy triggers at work.

Not only can your allergy symptoms affect your job if you were unable to get a good night's sleep because of a stuffy nose, but you can also be affected by the things surrounding you at work.

Is it an allergy or an irritation?

Allergens can be found in anything from food to dust and are harmless, except when the immune system doesn’t "agree" with them and fights them. This causes a reaction when the body has an inflammatory reaction after coming into contact with an allergen.

Allergic rhinitis occurs when there is inflammation in the nose caused by allergy.

On the other hand, non-allergic rhinitis is caused by things that simply irritate the lining of the nose, without an allergic reaction.

It is important to note that a trigger (such as dust) can be an allergen or irritant and that the symptoms can be very similar.

Allergies can be diagnosed and ruled out through a blood test or skin prick test, and the best way to pinpoint what’s causing your symptoms would be to monitor exactly when they occur at work. Here are common triggers that may cause sneezes and sniffles in an office:

1. Cosmetics such as perfumes, aerosols or hairspray

We understand that body odour is frowned upon in the workplace, but unfortunately taking care of the problem can literally make your colleagues ill. Strong, concentrated perfumes can trigger hay fever symptoms and even migraines.

2. Dust and dander

That construction site next to your office building, or any renovations done in your own building can wreak havoc on your nasal passages. But dust is not only caused by heavy construction – dense carpets, curtains, upholstery or too many ornaments on a desk can also collect dust.

Ensure that your work surface is clean and dust-free at all times and speak up if an open-plan space needs vacuuming.

And while we are not necessarily bringing our furry friends to work, Kittie’s fur may involuntarily trigger your colleagues' allergies if you're not careful. Carry a lint roller with you and be mindful of others when giving your animals one last hug in the morning.

3. Pollen

Pollen is a big trigger of allergies, whether you work inside or outdoors. When you work on a construction site, in a garden or near busy roads, you can easily be exposed to pollen. But even when you're confined to an office, pollen can travel indoors on the soles of shoes and cling to hair or coats.

You can’t avoid going to work altogether, but you can find out when the pollen count will be at its highest and take it from there. Limit pollen exposure by keeping windows closed when pollen levels are at their highest. When you work outside, wear sunglasses and a protective mask or buff.

4. Cleaning products

Industrial cleaning products and air fresheners used in office kitchens and bathrooms can release volatile organic compounds into the air that can trigger allergy symptoms. Be proactive and ask maintenance about the cleaning products used in your workspace.

5. Exhaust fumes

If you work outdoors near a busy highway, exhaust fumes can also trigger allergies.

But even if you work in an office, your daily commute can expose you to exhaust fumes that can trigger allergies.

A few years ago, a study published in the journal Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Research and mentioned in a Health24 article discussed the effect of traffic-related air pollution on asthma and respiratory allergies in young children. While there is a clear link between the prevalence of asthma and allergies in children living near main roads, they're not the only ones affected by traffic-related air pollution – grown-ups buckling up every day are just as susceptible.

The best way to alleviate the effect of fumes is to wear a protective mask or buff when working outdoors, or to keep your windows closed and the ventilation inside your car in working order.

6. Cigarette smoke

The effect of second-hand smoke has been studied for decades. Research suggests that there could be a link between second-hand smoke and rhinosinusitis. If smokers are allowed to smoke freely outside the building and you walk through a waft of smoke, you may be exposed to second-hand smoke.

In South Africa especially, according to the World Health Organization, more than a third of South Africans could be exposed to dangerous levels of second-hand smoke. 

If you are smoking, start planning your strategy to quit. And if you suffer from allergies, limit your time spent outside with smoking colleagues.

 7. The air conditioner (sort of)

Some of us will not be able to survive the scorching summer months without air conditioning, but it may cause some of your allergy symptoms, even though it’s not an allergen itself.

Health24's enviro-health expert, Olivia Rose-Innes, stated in a previous article that air conditioning can harbour mould spores that can aggravate symptoms in some people. But that doesn’t mean that the air conditioner is a physical allergen.

Dr Adrian Morris, Health24’s in-house allergy expert, says although there might be a connection between air conditioning and one’s health, one cannot be allergic to air-conditioning systems.

“You can’t be allergic to air conditioning; it’s a machine that cools air just like your fridge, but it can dry the nose and aggravate sinus issues.”

Ensure that air conditioners in your office space are serviced regularly to keep them free of mould spores and dust.  

As the pollen problem worsens, precise and expanded monitoring becomes even more essential. And here's how you can help.

Amid the highest recorded pollen counts in history, Health24 will be bringing you exclusive weekly pollen count updates courtesy of the UCT Lung Institute's Allergy and Immunology Unit.

Image credit: iStock

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