Although the thought of sleeping with millions of dust mites — microscopic arachnids that feast on flakes of skin — is just plain gross, it’s something most people can handle without worry. After all, our bodies are inhabited by multitudes of bacteria, to which we seldom give a thought.
For the many people who suffer from allergies, though, the allergens in dust-mite feces and body parts can lead to chronic sinus problems and coughing, among other symptoms. If gone untreated, the problem can escalate to eczema and asthma, particularly in children, according to James Sublett, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
“The sooner you intervene, the less likely the problems are to escalate,” he said.
Homes can be made more livable for allergy-sufferers — and less amenable to dust mites — in just a few steps.
About a quarter of Americans suffer from some sort of allergy. Of those one-half to two-thirds are sensitive to dust-mite allergens, Sublett says.
“Around the world, dust mites are the most common indoor allergen,” said Robert Wood, director of the pediatric allergy and immunology division of Johns Hopkins University.
If dust-mite allergies are suspected, the first step is to get tested by an allergist.
Periodically replacing all your bedding seems to make sense, but experts say it’s unnecessary for those without allergies and insufficient for allergy sufferers.
Instead, these tips from allergists can help make any home friendlier to those with indoor allergies, dust mites included:
▪ Keep it dry. “One of the biggest and most common mistakes people make is to install vaporizers and humidifiers,” Sublett said. “Moisture can and does cause all kinds of problems.” Dust mites can’t survive in less than 50 percent humidity, so buy a humidity meter and, if needed, a dehumidifier to keep humidity to between 35 percent and 50 percent. “Just three hours above that level of humidity, though, is enough to keep the dust mites alive,” he said.
▪ Rip out the rugs and ditch the drapes. Carpet and heavy drapes are a reservoir for allergens like dust mites and should be removed, particularly in bedrooms. If that isn’t an option, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology suggests frequent vacuuming using a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. Those with allergies should stay away or wear an N95 particulate mask during and immediately after vacuuming, since particles can remain airborne for up to two hours.
▪ Just encase. Encase all mattresses, box springs, pillows and comforters in well-sealed, tightly woven, microfiber “mite-proof” covers from a reputable company, such as Mission: Allergy or National Allergy Supply. Linens and stuffed animals should be washed weekly, allergists say. “The temperatures and detergents used are much less important than the regularity of washing,” Sublett said.
▪ Opt for smooth. Smooth surfaces that can be wiped clean are generally better for allergy sufferers than more porous upholstered surfaces on couches, chairs and even car seats, Sublett said.
▪ Clear and clean the air. To help keep indoor allergens of any kind at bay, homes should be smoke-free and pets should be kept out of the bedroom. For the allergy-prone, use a HEPA air filter in the bedroom with a CADR (clean air delivery rate) adequate for the size of the room. Install MERV 11 or 12 disposable, high-efficiency filters in the furnace and air conditioning system that can be changed every few months, Sublett says. But these steps are less important for those suffering solely from dust-mite allergies, since dust mites burrow deep in bedding and dust-mite particles are generally not airborne.
▪ Check the units. Clean and service heating and air conditioning units every six months.