If you’ve been experiencing allergic reactions on a year-round basis, you may have a dust mite allergy. Symptoms often peak during hot, humid summers when people spend more time indoors, as well as at night when people are lying in bed.
Signs you might have a dust mite allergy include:
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
- Watery eyes
- Itchy eyes
- Itchy throat
- Itchy skin
- Chest pain
To alleviate your symptoms, we’ll teach you what dust mites are, where they hide, and how to evict them.
Examining dust mites
Know your enemy. Before you can get rid of dust mites, it’s helpful to know what you’re dealing with and where to find the little buggers.
What dust mites are
Dust mites are microscopic, insect-like arthropods that are only 1/4 to 1/3 millimeters long. Under a microscope, they look like tiny white spiders. The males can live a month or more, while females can live up to 90 days.
Dust mites feed on flakes of dead skin shed by people and animals. They thrive in houses since each person sheds up to 1.5 grams of dead skin cells per day. That’s enough to feed up to one million dust mites!
What dust mites aren’t
Dust mites are not parasites. Unlike bedbugs, they don’t bite or sting. Nor do they burrow into your body.
However, they can cause skin rashes and other allergic reactions like sneezing and postnasal drip. Those reactions are typically the result of inhaling dust mites’ skin and fecal matter.
Where dust mites live
Dust mites are found everywhere around the world, although they favor hot, humid climates. Because dust mites absorb moisture from the air rather than drinking it, they cannot survive in arid regions.
Hundreds of thousands of dust mites may be living in your house — specifically, in your carpet, upholstered furniture, bedding, mattress, and stuffed animals. Anywhere dead skin cells accumulate, there’s potential to find dust mites. And because they burrow into cloth fibers, they even tag along when you move and travel. So prevalent are they that nearly four out of five homes in the U.S. exhibit detectable levels of dust mite allergens.
Dust mite allergies and other complications
Researchers identified two types of dust mite allergens, using data from a 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of almost 7,000 U.S. homes. The presence of pets influenced the level of indoor allergens — as did type, age, and location, age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status of residents.
Some people are more susceptible to physical reactions to dust mites in the house. A study by NIEHS-funded scientists uncovered a mucus-regulating gene that causes the lungs to produce too much mucus as a defense against pollutants and allergens, which results in airway obstruction.
Chronic, continued exposure to dust mites in the home can severely impact the health of people who have asthma or a sensitivity to allergens and dust mites, which cause an immune system response known as allergic rhinitis. Mites are one of the biggest triggers for those who suffer from allergies and asthma.
Dust mite allergy causes and solutions
Don’t take it personally; the presence of dust mites doesn’t reflect on your housekeeping. Even in the cleanest of homes, it’s impossible to eliminate dust mites.
However, you can significantly reduce the number of dust mites in your house by taking steps to remove them and prevent them from coming back.
It’s important to know that pesticides do not get rid of dust mites.
Humidity is a key factor in determining whether a house has a high concentration of dust mites, but it’s not the only one. Older homes and homes with a musty smell tend to have more dust mites since these homes are often poorly ventilated and trap moisture indoors.
By the way, that musty “old house” smell comes from mVOCs — microbial volatile organic compounds emitted by decaying biological growths, mold, bacteria, and biofilm. Both mVOCs and dust mites thrive in damp environments, so it’s common for homes to have both issues.
- Using a dehumidifier
- Running the air conditioner
- Improving ventilation by installing efficient exhaust fans, ceiling fans, and soffit vents in the attic to increase airflow
Adequate ventilation reduces humidity levels in your home by removing moist air from the building.
Gravity may seem like an unlikely cause, but dust mite allergens don’t remain airborne because they attach to heavy particles in the air. Gravity then forces them to quickly settle to the ground, where they make their homes in fabrics, pillows, bedding, and upholstered furniture. That’s why most exposure occurs when homeowners are sleeping or disturb the dust during activities such as making the bed.
Reduce places where dust mites can hide by removing some furniture, swapping some upholstered seating pieces for seats with hard surfaces, and trading drapes and curtains for blinds.
Here are some tips to combat dust mites:
- Replace carpeting with hardwood floors.
- Mop floors often. Use a vacuum with a high-efficiency filter or use a central vacuum system.
- Dust with a damp cloth or a duster that traps dust instead of a feather duster that disperses dust.
- Wash bedding in hot water (130 to 140 degrees) once a week. Freeze non-washable bedding overnight. Don’t forget to wash pillows, pet bedding, and any soft toys and stuffed animals.
- Add a HEPA air purifier to capture dust mites before they have a chance to burrow into your fabrics. For just under $220, the Finn HEPA UV Air Purifier removes dust, pollen, mold, pet dander, and even light odors in small- to medium-size rooms.
Fluffy and Fido can suffer from dust mite allergies, too. They may also be contributors to the problem, thanks to those cushy pet beds and soft pet toys you generously buy for them. If you notice signs like excessive scratching or licking, eye rubbing, or difficulty breathing indoors, your favorite pooch or kitty could be suffering from a dust mite allergy.
Implement the same rigorous cleaning routine you established for the rest of the house and:
- Wash their bedding and toys in hot water.
- Use only synthetic materials for their bedding. Feathers, wool, and even cedar shavings can be a source of allergic dermatitis.
- Groom and bathe them, using allergy shampoos.
- Don’t leave pet food out all day; it will collect dust mites.
- See your vet for severe cases of pet dust mite allergies.
Prevent dust mites from returning
An ounce of prevention, as the old adage goes, is worth a pound of cure. Once you’ve cleaned your home, there are additional measures you can take to reduce the influx of future dust mites:
- Reduce the amount of carpeting in your home. Remember, vacuuming won’t remove all dust mites as they live deep inside fabrics.
- Vacuum any carpet and rugs remaining in your house as often as possible. Use a double-layered microfilter bag or a HEPA filter in your vacuum cleaner.
- Dust regularly. Be sure to get all furniture crevices and tiny nooks and crannies.
- Wash bedding weekly in hot water (130 degrees or hotter).
- Keep the humidity below 50%.
- Change your furnace filters regularly. Fresh filters also improve your furnace’s efficiency and potentially lower your energy bill.
- Add an air filter to pull dust and other pollutants out of the air. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends a HEPA filter to remove “99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns.” Look for a filter with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value of 11 or 12 and change it every three months.
- Clean your ducts and vents.
- Use certified allergen-capturing filters in your A/C unit and vacuums.
- Use zippered mattress and pillow covers made of material with pores too small to let dust mites penetrate; these are considered allergen-impermeable. Certified asthma and allergen mattress and pillow covers block allergens and dust mites from penetrating. Plastic or vinyl covers are inexpensive, and fabric versions aren’t much more costly.
Say goodbye to a “mite-y” big problem
Mitigating dust mite allergies is no easy task, but it’s worth the effort to reap the health benefits of a dust-mite-depopulated home. Whether or not you have a predisposition to react to dust mite allergens, you’ll sleep better at night knowing you have removed as many of those little pests as possible.
Header Image Source: (Diana Polekhina / Unsplash)