Dust mites are extremely tiny bugs that belong to the spider family. They live in house dust and feed on the dead skin cells that people regularly shed. Dust mites can survive in all climates and at most altitudes. They thrive in warm environments, preferring those at 70°F (21°C) and 70 percent relative humidity.
When you breathe in the waste products of dust mites, your immune system kicks into high gear, producing antibodies against the normally harmless substances. This overzealous immune response causes the symptoms associated with a dust mite allergy, such as sneezing and runny nose.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), this type of allergy affects about 20 million people in the United States. Aside from allergy symptoms, long-term exposure to dust mite allergens may lead to sinus infections and asthma.
An allergy is the immune system’s response to an unknown substance that’s not usually harmful to your body. These substances are called allergens. They may include certain foods, pollens, and dust mites. People who are allergic to dust mites have bad reactions to the remnants of the bugs. These remnants include tiny mounds of feces and decaying bodies.
You might have a relatively clean household, but it doesn’t take much to create an environment fit for dust mites. In fact, the average bedroom is often the ideal place for them. Bedding, carpeting, and furniture cushions all trap and hold moisture, allowing these tiny bugs to flourish. Over time, you could experience increased allergy symptoms as you continue to breathe in the dust mites’ waste particles.
It’s important to note that dust can be a sneeze-inducing annoyance for anyone, but only certain people have the immune responses that actually constitute a dust mite allergy.
Dust mite allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe. They may include the following:
- runny or itchy nose
- postnasal drip
- itchy skin
- sinus pressure (may cause facial pain)
- itchy, watery, or red eyes
- scratchy throat
- swollen, bluish-colored skin beneath the eyes
- trouble sleeping
You may experience additional symptoms if you have asthma and are allergic to dust mites. These symptoms may include:
- chest pain or tightness
- difficulty breathing
- wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath
- difficulty talking
- severe asthma attack
You should see an allergist if you find your symptoms are worse at home, especially when cleaning or when you go to bed. An allergist is someone who diagnoses and treats allergies, and this person can diagnose a dust mite allergy.
Your allergist will use diagnostic tests to determine whether you have a dust mite allergy. The most common type is a skin-prick test. During this test, the allergist will prick an area of your skin with a small extract of the allergen. Your allergist will then wait about 15 minutes to see if your skin has any negative reactions. If you do have a reaction, you will likely develop a large bump around the pricked area of skin. The area may also become red and itchy.
A blood test is sometimes used instead of a skin test. Note that a blood test can only screen for antibodies, so the results may not be as accurate.
The best treatment option is to limit your exposure to dust mites. If that doesn't work, there are several over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help relieve the symptoms of a dust mite allergy:
- antihistamines (such Allegra or Claritin) to help relieve sneezing, a runny nose, and itching
- nasal corticosteroids (such as Flonase or Nasonex) to reduce inflammation while offering fewer side effects than their oral counterparts
- decongestants (such as Sudafed or Afrin) to shrink tissues in nasal passages, making it easier to breathe
- medications that combine an antihistamine and decongestant (such as Actifed or Claritin-D)
Other treatments that may provide relief include:
- cromolyn sodium
- leukotriene modifiers (for example, Singulair, Accolate, Zyflo)
- immunotherapy (allergy shots)
Rinsing your nasal passages with warm salt water, known as nasal lavage, on a daily basis is another effective way to clear allergens from the sinuses. You can do this with either a squeeze bottle or neti pot.
Bedding is the ideal breeding ground for dust mites. It’s usually the perfect temperature and humidity for them, and the people curled up at night provide an unlimited food supply.
Fortunately, it's not a losing battle for those with dust mite allergies. You can take the following steps to help make sure your bed stays dust-mite free:
- Use allergen-proof bed covers on the mattress, box spring, and pillows. Zippered covers are best. Their tightly woven fabric prevents dust mites from getting into beds.
- Wash all bedding — including sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and bed covers — in hot water at least once a week. Dry in a hot dryer or in natural sunlight during summer months.
There are more ways to manage dust mites. Unlike with outside allergens such as pollen, you can keep dust mites under control with a few key steps:
- Use an air conditioner or dehumidifier to keep the relative humidity between 30 and 50 percent.
- Purchase a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
- Buy only washable stuffed toys, and wash them often. Keep stuffed toys off beds.
- Dust frequently with either a damp (or oiled) towel or mop. This helps minimize the amount of dust and prevents it from accumulating.
- Vacuum regularly using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. A person with a severe dust mite allergy should have someone else do this task.
- Get rid of clutter where dust collects.
- Clean curtains and upholstered furniture often.
- Replace carpeting with wood, tile, linoleum, or vinyl flooring, if possible.
If you’re allergic to dust mites, continued exposure to dust mites can certainly be uncomfortable. Aside from allergic reactions, frequent exposure to indoor allergens can also increase the risk for developing asthma. This is especially true in children.
While dust mite allergies take some work to control, the good news is that they are controllable. Work with your allergist to determine best practices and treatment measures so that you can manage your symptoms.