Despite your best efforts to get a healthy amount of sleep every night, do you find you can't shake the dark circles under your eyes? Do you wake up every morning with a stuffy head, itchy nose and headache? It may not be a cold or flu; it might be allergies. You may be one of the roughly 20 million (or 10 percent of) Americans who are allergic to dust mites [source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America].
Dust mites are harmless. They are tiny white arachnids, eight-legged creatures like spiders and ticks. They don't bite or cause illness, like bed bugs or ticks can, and they're so tiny -- only about one-quarter to one-third of a millimeter in size -- you can't see them with the naked eye. In fact, if you aren't allergic to them, you might never know they live among us.
Dust mites live, just as you might guess, in dust particles. And because they're so small, between 100 and 500 -- and sometimes as many as 19,000 -- might be found in just one gram of dust [source: American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology]. They eat dead skin cells and dander that naturally sloughs off us and our pets (as well as other things found in dust, such as mold and pollen), reproduce a new generation about every three to four weeks and live for anywhere between one to three months. Because they absorb -- rather than drink -- water, they survive best in humid conditions, especially those right around 55 to 75 percent humidity, and warm-but-mild temperatures, ranging from 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 25 degrees Celsius).
Let's look more deeply at dust mite allergies, what causes them and the symptoms you might expect.
Dust Mites and Allergies
So if dust mites are harmless, why worry about getting rid of them? For those who suffer from a dust mite allergy, it can mean the difference between suffering daily allergy symptoms or not.
A dust mite allergy is considered a type of indoor allergy, and is often confused with hay fever because the symptoms are similar. The biggest difference, though, are dust mite allergy symptoms can strike year-round and often include the following:
- Nasal congestion, along with sneezing, postnasal drip, and a runny, itchy nose (or throat)
- Red, irritated and puffy eyes
- Dark or blue-hued, under-eye circles
- Headaches, sinus pain and pressure
- Coughing and congestion
- In some individuals, asthma symptoms such as wheezing, chest pain and breathing problems
Here's what's going on. When the body's immune system detects a foreign substance (also known as an antigen) such as a virus or infection, it mounts an attack, helping to keep us safe and healthy. An allergic reaction happens when our immune system responds to a foreign substance such as pet dander, pollen or dust mites -- substances that normally aren't our enemy -- in an exaggerated way, resulting in symptoms that range from sneezing and congestion to itching and rashes. Sometimes a severe, whole-body allergic reaction called anaphylaxis may occur, which requires immediate medical attention.
People allergic to dust mites are actually having a reaction to proteins that are part of the waste dust mites produce. Controlling a dust mite allergy comes down to eradicating them from your home. Regardless of how often you dust and how clean a house your keep, you can't eliminate 100 percent of them. But there are steps that you can take to significantly cut their numbers, from some simple changes in how you clean to making allergy-friendly decisions regarding the bedding and furniture you buy.
Controlling Dust Mites in Your Home
A clean home. It seems like it'd be a big part in reducing dust mites and dust mite allergies, right? Yes, but how well-dusted a room is won't take care of the problem, and since it's pretty much impossible to remove all dust particles it's also impossible to remove all dust mites.
Dust mites are vulnerable to low humidity levels and high temperatures, and dust mite preventative strategies often include a combination of strategic cleaning, hot water and controlling the humidity levels in your home. Let's look at the bedroom first, since we spend about one-third of our lives sleeping -- and since bedding is a popular spot for dust mites to gather.
Most often, the highest concentrations of dust mites are found in our beds, including the mattress, pillows and bedding. Researchers have found that after just one to two years, your pillow may contain as much as 10 to 25 percent dust mite waste [source: DustMiteFacts.org]. Experts recommend encasing your mattress and box spring, as well as those pillows, in air-tight zippered covers. Wash all bedding, from sheets to blankets to pillows, a minimum of once per week in very hot water, at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit (which is higher than what most hot water heaters are often set to) because cooler water temperatures will leave dust mites and their allergens behind.
In addition to bedding, dust mites are often found in carpeting and upholstered and overstuffed furniture, as well as in drapes and stuffed toys. Replace any wall-to-wall carpeting with hard flooring, and use special filters (HEPA, which stands for high-efficiency particulate air) with your vacuum cleaner to reduce the number of dust mites in carpeting and furniture, as well as the number of particles that release into the air during cleaning. If you suffer from a dust mite allergy, also consider wearing an allergy mask while cleaning to avoid breathing in dust stirred up in the cleaning process. Concerned about removing dust mites from items that can't be thrown into the washer and dryer? Freezing may help. Place the item in your freezer for no less than 24 hours to kill any dust mites living within. Alternatively, dry cleaning fabrics will remove dust mites.
Finally, reduce the humidity level in your home with the help of a dehumidifier or an air conditioner. Ideally you want to keep the moisture level below 50 percent to make the environment undesirable for dust mites.
By removing the places dust mites like to gather, such as carpeting, and encasing and cleaning items that you can't live without, such as your mattress, it's possible to significantly reduce the number of dust mites in your home, despite not being able to completely live without them.
More Great Links
- Alliance for Healthy Homes. "Dust Mites." (June 20, 2011) http://www.afhh.org/hhe/hhe_dust_mites.htm
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. "Dust Allergy." (June 20, 2011) http://www.acaai.org/allergist/allergies/Types/dust-allergy-information/Pages/indoor-allergies-relief.aspx
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "Allergy Facts and Figures." (June 20, 2011) http://www.aafa.org/display.cfm?id=9&sub=30
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "Dust Mites." (June 20, 2011) http://www.aafa.org/display.cfm?id=9&sub=18&cont=228
- DustMites.org. (June 20, 2011) http://www.dustmites.org/
- DustMiteFacts.org. "FAQs." (June 20, 2011) http://www.dustmitefacts.org/faq.php
- MayoClinic. "Dust mite allergy: Symptoms." 2010. (June 20, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dust-mites/DS00842/DSECTION=symptoms
- MedicineNet. "Allergy: What causes allergies?" 2007. (June 20, 2011) http://www.medicinenet.com/allergy/page2.htm#toc2at
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – National Institutes of Health. "Dust Mites." 2011. (June 20, 2011) http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/asthma/allergens/dustmites/index.cfm
- Ogg, Barb. "Managing House Dust Mites." University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (June 20, 2011) http://lancaster.unl.edu/pest/resources/dustmites311.shtml
- The Patient Education Institute. "X-Plain Dust Mite Allergy Reference Summary." 2008. (June 20, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/tutorials/allergiestodustmites/id039203.pdf
- WebMD. "Dust Allergies." 2009. (June 20, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/allergies/dust-allergies