Having a bird is good for you - science is proving that few things relax us or entertain us the way that pets do. Birds make us smile, make us laugh, and even reduce our blood pressure. But, for many of us, they also make us sneeze, cough and wheeze.

Roughly one out of four people suffers from chronic allergies, and animal allergies are among the most common varieties. Virtually any warm-blooded animal can trigger a response, and birds are no exception to the rule.

What is an Allergic Reaction?

An allergy is simply an abnormal immune system reaction to a substance, commonly called an allergen or antigen, which most people wouldn't even notice. The immune system wrongly interprets the normal substance as a health threat and releases antibodies in response. These antibodies then attach themselves to the surface of special cells called mast cells. The mast cells respond by releasing a range of chemicals that cause blood vessels to expand and leak fluid, while the airways in the lungs contract.

Sensitivity to animals is one of the most common of all allergies, and while cats are the most likely culprit, virtually any animal with fur or feathers can bring on allergic reaction. Symptoms can include:

  • Red, itchy or watery eyes
  • Itchy nose with nasal congestion or sneezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chronic sore or scratchy throat
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Itchy, broken out skin

People used to believe a bird's feathers were to blame, but medical studies have shown that mites in the feathers, not the feathers themselves, cause the allergic reaction.

Living with Allergies AND a Bird

Different people react differently to allergens. If you are allergic to your bird, your body might respond with any of the following:

  • Asthma: a respiratory reaction that causes difficulty breathing.
  • Rhinitis: stuffiness of the nose and subsequent sneezing.
  • Conjunctivitis: an inflammation of the eye, leading to an infection also known as pinkeye.
  • Eczema: an itchy skin rash, less common in response to birds, but still a possibility.

Of course, this doesn't sound like the happy, stress-relieving state of pet ownership that so many people enjoy. But is it possible to get the best of both worlds? Can you have a bird and an allergy and still be happy?

Very possibly. Recent studies have shown that allergies are cumulative. Each trigger builds on other triggers, increasing the severity of the allergic reaction. So, if you are allergic to several different things, including your bird, you can possibly keep your reaction to your pet within tolerable limits by reducing your exposure to other triggers, such as dust, plants, pollens, molds, mildews or other items to which your body produces an allergic response.

Reducing the Allergens

You can further reduce the allergens in your environment by taking several simple steps:

  • Keep your bird out of your bedroom. The largest amount of time you spend in your home is spent sleeping in your bedroom, so if your bird isn't there, you have a much better chance of controlling your allergies.
  • Don't be a martyr. Have a non-allergic family member clean out the cage, since the cage is a prime source of allergens. When cleaning the cage, use boiling water to remove the mites, and treat your bird with pyrethrin or carvaryl.
  • Install a built-in high efficiency (HEPA) or electrostatic filter. They can reduce the number of allergens in the air of your home by up to 98%, and are also effective at eliminating odors, including pet and cooking odors. HEPA filters are also available for your vacuum cleaner, but be sure to have someone else do the vacuuming so you are not exposed to the dust and dander that is kicked up.
  • Increase cleaning and dusting frequency. Use natural items such as vinegar, water, and club soda in place of heavily perfumed commercial chemicals, or use a commercial product specially designed for allergy sufferers.

Medication Alternatives

If these measures fail, you can also consider medication alternatives. A wide range of medication is available to treat the symptoms of allergic reactions. Consult a physician to discuss your options.