Too small to see without a microscope or strong magnifying glass, dust mites are arachnids, the class of arthropods that includes spiders, scorpions and ticks. They live in every home—a typical used mattress can host anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million mites. If you don’t suffer from a dust mite allergy or asthma, they aren’t harmful. But if you do, dust mites wreak havoc on your health because their microscopic feces and decaying bodies mix with dust, become airborne and enter the lungs. Their presence in the lungs triggers many symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, and may include:
-Itchy, watery eyes
-Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat
-Swollen, blue-colored skin under the eyes
-Facial pressure and pain
Asthma patients may experience increased lung congestion, wheezing and shortness of breath. Other allergic reactions to dust mites may include headaches, fatigue and depression.
Since there is no cure for dust mite allergies, the key to preventing symptoms is controlling not only the dust mite population but also the dust that transports them into your indoor air. Since dust mites feed on both human and animal dead skin cells and moisture (such as perspiration), eliminating those sources is all-important. Your primary battleground in the war against dust mites? The bedroom, although dust mites live everywhere in the home, especially in upholstered or carpeted areas.
I have found that the following strategies are well worth the effort when you consider these chilling statistics from the Entomology Department of The Ohio State University Extension: Ten percent of the weight of a two year-old pillow can be composed of dead mites and their droppings, and about 80 percent of the material seen floating in a sunbeam is actually skin flakes.
What to Do About Dust Mites:
• If no one in your home is sensitive to latex, impermeable latex mattress and box spring covers are resistant to dust mites. Damp dust the mattress cover frequently, and thoroughly vacuum pillows and the base of the bed.
• The natural moisture-wicking properties of silk sheets and comforters make them inhospitable to the tiny critters. Wool blankets and down comforters, however, should be replaced with nylon or cotton cellulose blankets.
• Use pillows with synthetic fillings, not feather or down.
• Since carpets attract dust mites, hard wood floors, tile or vinyl floor coverings are your best bet, especially in the bedroom. If you want to soften the look of hard wood floors, use small, skid-proof area rugs that can be frequently laundered.
• Dust mites thrive in high humidity, so take care not to over-humidify in the winter. Dehumidifiers and air-conditioning are helpful during warmer months. A humidity level below 50% is ideal. (You can measure home humidity levels with a hygrometer, available at hardware stores). Don’t go to bed with wet hair, as the dampness will attract dust mites.
• Wash pillowcases, sheets and under blankets weekly. Frequently launder blankets, mattress pads and comforters in hot water (130 degrees F). Don’t forget to launder curtains. Non-washable bedding can be frozen overnight in a plastic bag; use a chest freezer or the outdoors when winter temperatures dip below freezing.
• Reduce or eliminate items that collect dust, and therefore dust mites: dried flowers, wicker baskets, numerous knickknacks, piles of magazines or newspapers—anything difficult to dust or vacuum is a prime suspect.
• Buy washable stuffed toys and keep them off the beds; launder them often in hot water and dry thoroughly.
• Portable air purifiers that emit a low level of ozone (activated oxygen) can help remove dust mite food sources because ozone attaches to fungus, mold and bacteria on skin flakes. One portable air purifier typically protects about 2500 square feet of living space when placed in a central location in the home or near an air return. Various types of air purifiers can be attached to the central air return; most filters remove 50 to 70 percent of irritants, and HEPA filters will remove up to 99% of irritants.
• Consider installing a central vacuum system that removes all dust and dirt and transports it to a central source away from living spaces.
• Steam cleaners will safely and effectively kill dust mites in mattresses, carpets, upholstery, rugs and drapes. They require no chemicals and use very little water, so you can use them to clean almost any fabric or surface. “Dry” vapor steam cleaners are particularly effective for killing dust mites.