What would you say, if we were to tell you that in your home there are thousands if not millions of microscopic creatures feeding on your dead skin cells? Ehhhuuhk! It sounds like a science fiction or horror movie doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s the truth!!!
In almost every home, almost everywhere on earth, there are dust mites. Dust Mites are invisible to the naked eye, you need a microscope to see them. Dust mites and their feces can devastate allergy sufferers causing sneezing, coughing, and much more severe symptoms. Even if you don’t suffer from allergies, your friends and family may. Read on to learn more about how dust mites can affect your health and what to do about them!
What are dust mites? What do they eat?
Dust mites are insect-like, but are not insects. They are actually arachnids, and their relatives include ticks, spiders, and scorpions. Arachnids do not have antennae like insects, and have 8 legs, where insects have 6. They are microscopic creatures and cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Dust mites eat the dead skin cells from animals including people and their pets. They do not bite people or animals. They normally only eat dead animal cells, but will also eat old fish food, pet food, cereal crumbs, and tiny bits of food that tend to be forgotten in dark corners. Dust mites thrive in warm, moist environments, just like mold. They prefer temperatures from 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 25 degrees Celsius) and humidity levels from 70 to 80 percent. (Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 2015)
Where do they come from?
Dust mites are found anywhere there is a food source for them, so just about everywhere on earth. They concentrate in areas where the environment is warm, moist and has a readily available food source, such as where people and animals live. So dust mites live in nearly everyone’s home, office, and everywhere we go.
Dust mites do not drink water like we do, but absorb moisture from the air. Deserts and other regions that have low humidity, have much lower dust mite populations because they must have humid air to survive.
One of the good things about dust mites and their feces is that they usually do not stay airborne (unlike pet dander). Dust mite allergens are usually found in carpet, on bedding, furniture, and fabrics in your home, which serve as nests for the creatures. They are usually still unless disturbed by movement such as, making or stripping the bed, sitting down or getting up from furniture or other fabrics, walking on carpets, etc.
How do dust mites affect my health?
Dust mites and their feces can be major triggers for those with dust mite allergies and asthma. Exposure to dust mites over long periods of time can cause chronic allergy and asthma problems. Dust mites are scavengers and recyclers and do not ever bite people or animals.
According to the Mayo Clinic, dust mite allergy symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy, red or watery eyes
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat
- Postnasal drip
- Facial pressure and pain
- Swollen, blue-colored skin under your eyes
- In a child, frequent upward rubbing of the nose
If your dust mite allergy contributes to asthma, you may also experience:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness or pain
- An audible whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling
- Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
- Bouts of coughing or wheezing that are worsened by a respiratory virus such as a cold or the flu
Mild cases of dust mite allergy may only cause mild symptoms, such as a runny nose or itchy eyes. More severe allergies can cause chronic illness due to coughing, sneezing, congestion and facial pressure, and even severe asthma attacks.
These symptoms remind me of having a cold. How do I know if I have allergies or a cold? When should I go to the doctor?
Allergies usually last longer than a week, and symptoms do not clear up. If symptoms are severe (severe asthma attack, coughing or nasal congestion), you should seek your doctor’s help immediately. If you are short of breath when doing basic activities, you should see your doctor.
Doctors can diagnose a dust mite allergy with a skin prick test or an IgE (or antibody) blood test.
Skin prick tests can be done in a doctor or allergists office. A drop of water, that contains the allergen to be tested, is dropped onto the skin, and then pricked with a sterile needle. If you are allergic to the substance, you will usually develop a red, itchy wheal at the spot within 20 minutes. Developing an itchy wheal does not necessarily mean you have an allergy. The doctor must measure the size of the wheal and determine how long it took to develop.
Blood tests are used when you are taking medicine for a skin condition or taking medicine that interferes with skin testing. Blood tests may also be used for children, who may not tolerate the skin prick test. For the IgE blood test, your blood is added to a tube with specific allergens, then antibodies that are produced by the blood are measured to determine the severity of the allergy.
Reducing and Removing Dust Mites
Dust mites can wreak havoc on your sinuses, but fear not! You can reduce their population in your home with some simple changes and a cleaning routine.
All vacuum cleaners are NOT created equal when it comes to allergens such as dust mites. Vacuum cleaners equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air filter or HEPA filter are vital when dealing with dust mites. According to The Spruce, “true HEPA filters have a serial number assigned to them and have been proven to trap at least 99.97 percent of particles of 0.3 microns.” Which means they can trap dust mites, their feces, pet dander, and other allergens you don’t want coming back into the air after vacuuming!
Using the vacuum attachments allows you to reach all sorts of places that dust mites can hide, such as in corners, on furniture, in couches even hanging from the ceiling!
A word about robot vacuums… It sounds wonderful doesn’t it, something to vacuum your house for your everyday! Except, most robot vacuums cannot reach corners or under tables, cannot remove dust from furniture, and cannot reach anything above the floor. Real elbow grease is required to clean and remove dust mites from all those other places where they hide.
Vacuuming alone may also not be enough! Dust mites hide deep in cushions, couches, chairs, mattresses, pillows and even stuffed animals.
Washing Sheets, Curtains, Pillows and other Fabrics
Have you been waking up sneezing every day this week? Maybe dust mites on your sheets are to blame. Wash sheets at least weekly in hot water (130F or higher). Pillows, stuffed animals, curtains, sheets, and cushions can also harbor dust mites. Washing fabrics in water that is at least 130F will kill dust mites. If your washing machine has an allergen setting, use it! The allergen cycle on a washing machine makes the machine heat the water to 130F or higher in the wash cycle, killing dust mites. Check fabric labels for washability first! If possible, remove any fabrics from your home decor that are not washable or cannot be washed in hot water.
You can choose to use a mattress cover and pillow covers that are dust mite proof. The covers work in three different ways. 1. Covers prevent dust mites from reaching their food source (your dead skin cells). 2. They keep dust mites and allergens from flying into the air each time you sit on your bed. 3. Covers keep mattresses and pillows clean. Most mattress and pillow covers that are dust mite proof must be washed and dried on cool settings, so as not to ruin the plastic part of these covers. You can also choose mattress and pillow covers that can be washed in hot water (but not dust mite proof) to remove dust mites.
That favorite stuffed animal may be causing more trouble than you know. Stuffed animals are havens for dust mites, especially the most loved toys that are slept with often. If possible, reduce the number of stuffed animals in your home. Wash toys weekly in hot water to kill dust mites. Warning: this may shorten the life of the toy! Having children rotate which animal they sleep with can help make toys last longer. Be sure to check that toys are washable first!
Carpet is a breeding ground for dust mites, and can never be cleaned enough to eliminate them! Removing carpet, especially in bedrooms, and replacing it with solid flooring is essential for allergy sufferers. Solid surface flooring should be mopped at least weekly to reduce dust mite populations. Rugs that can be washed weekly in hot water are a good choice as well.
If removing carpet is not an option, steam cleaning twice a year can reduce dust mites.
You could choose a professional cleaning service, but be aware… the chemicals they use to clean your carpets can also emit VOC’s, be dangerous, or even toxic. There are very few regulations on commercial or consumer carpet cleaning chemicals in the US. It is safer therefore to do it yourself.
Deep or Steam Cleaning Carpets
When deep cleaning carpets, vacuum the room twice and move any easily movable furniture to another room. Spottreat stains before steam cleaning. Popular Mechanics has an excellent guide to spot cleaning called 10 Carpet Cleaning Secrets from the Pros.
You can rent steam or buy cleaners, and make your own cleaning solutions. The simplest cleaning solution is to simply use hot (not boiling) water in the steam cleaner. Hot water gets most dirt and grime out of carpets without needing any further help. If carpets are very dirty, using white vinegar with hot water at a rate of 1 cup of vinegar to 2 and a ½ gallons of hot water should help remove more grime. Be sure to open the windows and turn on ceiling fans to ventilate the room before beginning, and to help the carpets dry faster.
Most steam cleaners have 2 modes, the first to wet the carpet, and the second to remove the water. Be sure to do three or more passes with the second mode to remove as much water and grime as possible. Once the carpet has been cleaned, use ceiling or box fans to dry the carpet before allowing people and pets to walk on it. You can use aluminum foil to cover the bottom of furniture legs to keep furniture stain from bleeding into the carpet.
Twice a year deep cleaning is usually sufficient for a family of 4 in a home without allergies or asthma. However, if you have pets or high traffic areas of carpet such as in a school or business, deep cleaning is recommended more frequently. To learn more about how often to deep clean commercial carpets go to: How Often Should You Clean Commercial Carpet by Pam Peters of DPM Floor and Upholstery Care.
We highly recommend that you remove as much carpet as possible from homes, schools, and businesses and replace the carpet with hard surface flooring.
Mopping and Dusting
Vacuuming and mopping floors often can help reduce dust mite populations as well as other potential allergens. Using a damp rag, rather than a dry rag, to dust hard surfaces can keep dust mite allergens out of the air. Vacuuming dust with a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter also keeps dust and dust mites out of the air. Couches and chairs that are made of fabric can be very difficult to keep clean and dust mite free! At least once a month, couches and chairs should have cushions removed and the insides vacuumed and fabric covers should be washed. Dust mite covers are also available for chairs and couches. Leather or vinyl couches and chairs are ideal for those with allergies can be wiped with a damp rag to reduce dust.
Dust mites and molds thrive in high humidity environments. Make your home less hospitable! Humidity levels below 50% (or between 30-50%) can reduce both dust mite and mold growth in your home. You can measure the moisture level in your home using a tool called a hygrometer. Hygrometers are inexpensive and easy to use. They can be moved from room to room to measure moisture and temperature levels. You may find that some rooms in your home are more humid than others.
Using a dehumidifier can help reduce moisture levels. To learn more about weather you need a dehumidifier, check out this article from The Spruce: Signs You Might Need a Dehumidifier (2019).
Reducing dust mite populations is possible with knowledge, a little elbow grease, and a few home improvements. Once dust mite populations are reduced, allergy symptoms to dust mites should decrease. Remember that dust mites thrive on fabrics, carpet, and in high humidity. We hope we have given you the knowledge you need, so that you can be symptom free and breathe clean fresh indoor air!
Branch Environmental – Because nobody should live or work in a building that makes them sick.
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