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Sleeping with the Enemy: The Dangers of Dust Mites

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Though most people know when a bed bug is in their midst (the red welts are a dead giveaway), dust mites, those ubiquitous dead-flesh eaters invisible to the naked eye, largely go unnoticed. But chances are they’re making a nice home for themselves in your mattress. And pillows. And carpet. 

The horror stories can literally make your skin crawl. Most mattresses have thousands of these bugs, which feast on sloughed off skin cells and pet dander. Some estimates claim that dust mites and their droppings can comprise almost 10 percent of a two-year-old pillow. 

But although a slew of tiny bugs in your bed may make laying your weary head difficult, are they really that bad? And are the mattress covers, sprays, and other expensive measures really necessary? 

Sleep with One Eye Open
Dust mites are microscopic arachnids that feed on human skin scales, fungi, bacteria, and animal dander. They don’t drink water, instead absorbing it from the air and environment. Because humans lose almost an ounce of dead skin in a month and because we spend a lot of time in our beds, dust mites often congregate in our mattresses and pillows, as well as in couches and in other well-worn upholstery. 

Although this sounds bad, dust mites, unlike bed bugs, don’t feed directly on us. They aren’t parasitic and don’t get under our skin, as do scabies. However, dust mites and their debris can contribute to household dust, which is a common trigger for people with allergies and asthma. Though their debris is not the only allergen in dust—things like pollen, animal dander, cigarette ash, cockroach droppings, and mold also contribute—they are a major constituent, and their presence can lead to the watery eyes, a stuffy nose, nasal blockage, and respiratory problems associated with allergies and asthma. Reducing their population might help. 

Who Invited the Bugs to Bed?
Although we may not be able to get rid of dust mites altogether, we can reduce their population significantly. One of the best ways to do this is by lowering humidity. According to an article by the University of Nebraska Extension Center, dust mites need warm temperatures—around 75 to 80° F—and high humidity to live. Some research has shown that when humidity is below 60 percent, the mite population will cease to reproduce and can die out. This can be a challenge in some places, especially during the summer months, but air conditioning can help. 

Since dust mites also feed on animal dander, pets should have a separate sleeping area that can be easily cleaned. Similarly, carpeting is a safe-haven for dust mites and other dust particles, so hardwood floors and easily cleaned area rugs are a better bet when it comes to reducing dust. If saying goodbye to the wall-to-wall isn’t an option, get it steam cleaned at least once a year. 

Cleaning bedding is also a must-do to reduce dust mite populations. Warm water (around eighty degrees) and detergent can help remove dander and mites; cleaning once a week is ideal. Dry clean blankets and other non-washable items once a year. 

Other items can easily collect dust, and hence, mites. Those with allergies and asthma should keep clutter, stuffed animals, throw pillows, and cloth wall hangings to a minimum. 

To Cover or Not to Cover?
One of the most recommended methods for those with dust mite allergies is to cover mattresses and pillows with plastic. These methods can be expensive but might not be very effective. A meta-analysis published in the 2008 journal Allergy culled fifty-four studies that looked at physical (including bed covers) and chemical mite-control interventions compared with no interventions in people with asthma. They found that there was no difference in the use of inhalers or asthma symptoms between the groups, leading the authors to conclude, “chemical and physical methods aimed at reducing exposure to house dust mite allergens cannot be recommended.” 

However, it’s possible that just one type of dust and allergen control may not reduce symptoms, and instead a range of cleaning tactics is the best bet. 

These include frequent vacuuming, dusting with a polish or wet cloth that doesn’t just scatter particles, and reducing other indoor pollutants, like air-fresheners, pollen, and tobacco smoke. 

We will never live in a bug-free world, and really, we wouldn’t want to. But keeping the house clean, uncluttered, and cool can help keep those microscopic critters to a minimum. And that can make sleeping a whole lot easier.

Updated April 15, 2011

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