How to get rid of your cat allergy symptoms

Furry pet allergies (allergic rhinitis) are common. Dog and cat allergies affect 10%-20% of the world's population and the rates are increasing. These allergies can not only have uncomfortable symptoms, but they can be distressing if you're an animal lover or have a family pet.

What causes cat allergies?

Cat allergies are an allergic reaction to some of the proteins that are found in:

  • Cat urine.
  • Cat saliva.
  • Cat skin cells.

Thorrun Govind, pharmacist and chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, explains that generally cat allergy symptoms are caused by dander, which are dead flakes of their skin from shedding. Unlike cat hair, dander often isn't visible, but it can settle on floors, surfaces, and furniture in homes.

Adult cats self-groom and lick themselves often and their saliva tends to flake off as they grow, as it transfers to their skin and coat. This saliva contains a protein called Fel d 1, which some cats produce more of than others; hence why some people might experience more severe cat allergy symptoms with certain types of cat. It could also explain a lack of reaction to kittens, as they don't self-groom as much.

How do I know if I have cat allergy?

Cat allergy symptoms are very similar to those of hay fever and other common allergic reactions.

Cat allergy symptoms include:

  • Sneezing.
  • Coughing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Blocked or runny nose.
  • Inflamed or watery eyes.
  • Itchy eyes, nose, or roof of the mouth.

There's a chance you might also feel a tightness in your chest, experience shortness of breath, and could develop hives. Hives occur when your skin reacts to an allergen and becomes itchy with a raised rash.

If you suspect a cat allergy, you should take note of any symptoms and seek a diagnosis from your doctor, who can refer you to an allergy specialist.

Govind adds that, if you get really bad symptoms like wheezing, or you are struggling to breathe, you should treat these symptoms as a medical emergency and call 999.

How long do cat allergy symptoms last after exposure?

Cat allergy symptoms will continue for as long as you are around an allergen. Once you are no longer near the allergen (for example, if your friend has a cat, once you return home), symptoms of cat allergies should settle within a few hours.

But they can last for 2-3 days, depending on how severe the cat allergies are. For example, if you've experienced significant eye swelling, this might take a couple of days to go down. You might be able to use antihistamines or oral steroids to help swelling settle more quickly.

"It's hard to say with 100% certainty whether symptoms will go away after exposure and whether you can grow out of allergies as such, so you must judge it on an individual basis. If you are struggling to breathe, you should avoid exposure for as long as possible, as having an animal around might not be the best idea, especially while you are awaiting diagnosis," says Govind.

How to test for cat allergy

Upon visiting an allergy specialist, they will perform a skin-prick test to diagnose a cat allergy. This involves placing a small extract of cat allergen on to your skin. Your skin is then pricked so the liquid can seep beneath the surface.

You can also order at-home allergy testing kits, which you can perform yourself and send off to a lab for the results. These tests check for the number of cat-hair-specific IgE antibodies in your blood, telling you whether you are sensitised to cat dander and, therefore, possibly allergic to cats.

How to get rid of cat allergy symptoms naturally

"Cat allergies can be quite distressing for people because their cat might be a beloved family pet. But, if you suspect an allergy, you will want to reduce your exposure to the animal or avoid them completely. This can be hard though if your cat is part of your household, since it might mean re-homing them," says Govind.

While avoidance is the main method of reducing cat allergy symptoms, this might not be sufficient on its own since cat dander can still be present in somebody's home. It can take months to clear from all of the surfaces in your house.

Other ways to ease cat allergies include:

  • Keep a cat outdoors if it is not possible to remove them fully.
  • Limit the cat to a single area of the house, keeping them away from bedrooms.
  • Cover mattresses and pillows with impermeable covers, and wash bedding frequently.
  • Ensure the house is well ventilated to prevent dander from becoming trapped.
  • Wash the cat with water every few weeks to remove the surface allergen.
  • Wear a face covering when brushing a cat or changing their litter tray.
  • Wash your hands after touching a cat or being around one.
  • Change your clothing following contact with a cat and wash your clothes in hot water.
  • Limit the number of soft furnishings in rooms so dander cannot adhere to it.
  • Take care with vacuum cleaners and dusting so you don't blow the dander into the air.

Medication for cat allergies

When all else fails, there are treatments for cat allergies. The most common is antihistamines, along with nasal sprays, which can often be bought over the counter.

You should consult your pharmacist or GP for advice on medication if you are unsure.

Can you live with a cat if you are allergic?

If you want to own a cat but experience mild cat allergy symptoms, it might be better to get a cat that sheds less to reduce dander. This is a judgement to make based on your symptoms, as Govind stresses that no cat breed is 100% 'safe' or completely hypoallergenic if you are allergic, as they are all going to shed a little bit.

Cat breeds that shed the least include:

  • Sphynx.
  • Siberian.
  • Bengal.
  • Cornish Rex.
  • Siamese.
  • Bombay.

"It's important to think carefully before getting a pet if you have suspected allergies. This should be a conversation in your household, so if you're thinking about adopting or buying a pet, you might want to test it out before you make the commitment," adds Govind.

Ultimately, you should assess how severe your symptoms are and whether you can manage them.

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