Running your vacuum cleaner regularly is one of the best ways to make your home look clean and tidy. Unfortunately, not all of the dust and particles (including pollen, fungus and bacteria) it sucks up stay in the machine. Especially if you have a cheap vacuum or a low-quality filter, your machine might spew them into the air — ultimately, into your lungs. That’s especially bad news for someone with asthma or allergies.

If vacuuming stirs up breathing troubles for you, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America suggests wearing a dust mask while you vacuum, then leaving the house for a few hours until the dust literally settles.

Even better, invest in a good vacuum cleaner with an effective filter, and make sure you maintain them properly.

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The ultimate vacuum: A central vacuum system

Ready to get serious about cleaning house? A central vacuum system could be for you. The vacuum is connected to a very long hose that either blows the debris out of your house through a vent in the wall or collects it through a filter into a disposal container. Allergists say it is by far the cleanest method available because nothing escapes back into the indoor air. However, the hose may prove cumbersome for some people.

If you’re not in the market for a new home that comes with one, you can have one installed in your current home.

Best, better and bad filters

Even a good vacuum cleaner is nothing without a good filter. Before buying a new vacuum cleaner, find out what kind of filter it takes.

Ultra low penetration air filter. Called “ULPA” for short, this is the highest-quality filter you can use, though it's mostly for industrial-grade machines in places like museums, hospital operating rooms and industrial cleanrooms. ULPA filters block particles as small as 0.12 micrometers with an efficiency rate of 99.999 percent, according to AgriLife, a life sciences research facility at Texas A&M University.

HEPA filters. A HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter blocks particles as small as 0.3 micrometers — the size of a single speck of corn starch — with an efficiency rate of 99.97 percent, AgriLife reports. Though it can be expensive, it’s a good choice for household use because it traps most of hazardous particles found in the home, such as bacteria, mold, pollen and fungus.

Micron filter. Also called an electrostatic filter or a HEPA-type filter, these have a similar construction to HEPA filters but they don’t meet the same quality specifications. Look for one with an efficiency rate of 98 percent.

Non-HEPA or non-HEPA-type air filter. These low-quality filters trap particles only as small as 30 to 50 micrometers — hair, dusts mites, and only the largest types of pollen and bacteria. If this is the kind of filter in your vacuum (call the manufacturer or check your owner’s manual for details) and you’re concerned about how your indoor air affects your health, you may want to upgrade.

You might be able to change out the filter for a better one, but if you have a cheap vacuum, even a better filter might not help if the machine is not well sealed. Some leak dust and particles through the sides of the machine.

Finally, a note on bags: If you have a bag-type vacuum, look for micro-lined bags treated with an anti-bacterial agent, advise experts at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).

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Tips for making your vacuum work better

A clean vacuum is an efficient vacuum. Clean the brush-roll of hair and fibers once in a while, and check the hoses and other air pathways for blockage.

If you have a HEPA filter, ACES recommends replacing it every six to 12 months or when it gets noticeably dirty. If you have a non-HEPA filter, you might be able to rinse it, dry and reinstall it several times before it needs replacing. Check with the manufacturer for instructions.

To maintain good airflow, empty the canister or change or empty the bag when it’s no more than half full.

Bagless models cost less to maintain because you don't have to keep buying new bags, but you’ll have to be careful you don’t send dust everywhere when you empty the canister. Here are some tips on how to empty the canister from the Lead Group and the EPA:

  • Cover up with old clothes and don a dust mask.
  • Grab an empty trash bag and the vacuum and head outside.
  • Carefully remove the canister from its housing.
  • Place the trash bag completely over the canister.
  • Slowly turn the canister upside down to empty it.
  • After the dust settles, remove the canister from the bag.
  • Tie the bag closed, allowing air to escape so it won't explode.

Follow these tips, and when you vacuum your house you’ll actually be cleaning it instead of spreading the dirt and dust around.

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David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.