Dust mites are microscopic bugs in the spider family. They can survive in all climates and at most altitudes. However, they thrive in house dust in warm environments, preferring the "70s"—70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 C) and 70 percent relative humidity.
In fact, the average bedroom is the ideal haunt for dust mites. Bedding, carpeting, and furniture cushions all trap and hold moisture, allowing these tiny terrors to flourish. And terrors they are.
Dust mites feed on the dead skin cells people regularly shed. If that weren't creepy enough, dust mites also don't need to drink water—they simply absorb it from the moisture in the air. Dust mites not only prefer to live in dust, they also add to it by leaving behind tiny mounds of feces and decaying corpses. It's the proteins in this detritus that may be the only reason most people even know about these mini-monsters—that's because it causes a whole lot of allergies.
When a person with an allergy breathes in the leftover dust mite remnants, his or her immune system kicks into gear, producing antibodies against the normally harmless substances. It's this overzealous immune response that's responsible for the symptoms associated with a dust mite allergy, such as sneezing and runny nose. However, prolonged exposure to dust mite allergens may lead to the chronic inflammation associated with asthma.
Dust mite allergy symptoms may range from mild to severe and may include the following:
- runny or itchy nose
- postnasal drip
- sinus pressure (may cause facial pain)
- itchy, watery or red eyes
- scratchy throat
- swollen, bluish-colored skin beneath the eyes
- trouble sleeping
Symptoms of an asthma-related dust mite allergy may also include:
- chest pain or tightness
- difficulty breathing
- wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath
- severe asthma attack
Minimizing an allergic person's exposure to dust mites is the best treatment option, but if that doesn't work, several over-the-counter and prescription medications are available that can help relieve the symptoms of a dust mite allergy:
- antihistamines, such as the prescription Allegra and the over-the-counter Claritin, can help relieve sneezing, runny nose, and itching by minimizing the immune system’s response
- nasal corticosteroids such as Flonase or Nasonex reduce inflammation while offering fewer side effects than their oral counterparts
- decongestants, such as Sudafed or Afrin, shrink tissues in nasal passages, making it easier to breathe for many allergy sufferers
- medications that combine an antihistamine and decongestant, such as Actifed or Claritin-D
Other treatments that may provide relief include cromolyn sodium, leukotriene modifiers (Singulair), and immunotherapy (allergy shots). Daily nasal lavage (rinsing the nasal passages with warm salt water) is an effective way to clear allergens from the sinuses, and can be performed with either a squeeze bottle or neti pot.
Dust Mite Allergy Bedding
Bedding provides the ideal breeding ground for dust mites. Not only is most bedding the perfect temperature and humidity for dust mites, the people curled up in it at night provide an unlimited food supply for the hungry beasts.
Fortunately, it's not a losing battle for those with allergies. An allergy sufferer can take the following steps to make sure he or she is sleeping alone (or at least without dust mites):
- Use allergen-proof bed covers on the mattress, box spring, and pillows. Zippered ones are best. Their tightly woven fabric prevents dust mites from getting a foothold in beds.
- Wash all bedding—including sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and bed covers—in hot water at least once a week. Dry in a hot dryer as well.
Dust Mite Allergy Control
Unlike outside allergens such as pollen, dust mites can be kept under control with a few key steps:
- Remove carpeting and replace with wood, tile, linoleum, or vinyl flooring if possible.
- 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 of beds as well.
- Dust frequently with either a damp (or oiled) towel or mop (helps keep dust down and prevents it from accumulating).
- Vacuum often using a cleaner with a HEPA filter (a person with a severe allergy should delegate this task).
- Get rid of dust-accumulating clutter around the home as well as upholstered furniture and horizontal blinds.