Dust mites are the microscopic cousins of the spiders, as well as of lobsters and shrimp. They feed on the dead skin cells we humans, as well as animals, shed on a daily basis.
They thrive well in humid and warm environments and often reside in the carpeting, bedding, as well as in upholstered furniture in our homes.
Although they do not bite humans, they are one of the main triggers causing allergic or asthmatic reactions at home or elsewhere.
Many people are allergic to dust mites. These allergies are actually triggered by inhaling their droppings or dead bodies, which easily become airborne, especially during cleaning when the dust is lifted off of the surfaces and into the air.
Some of the most common dust mite allergy symptoms include sneezing, congestion or runny nose and eyes, itchy skin, eczema, difficulty breathing, and in some severe cases, severe allergic reactions or asthma attacks.
It is possible that you have a dust mite allergy you are not aware of if you consistently experience some of the most common symptoms of this type of allergy all year around.
If you notice these types of symptoms, it is a good idea to speak with your doctor about the possibility that you have such an allergy.
Although dust mites cannot be completely prevented, there are ways to control their quantities and reduce their numbers significantly.
There are also treatments and medications which can alleviate the symptoms and prevent more severe allergic reactions or asthma attacks.
What are dust mites?
These microscopic arthropods are hard to detect because they are only 0.008–0.012 inches in size and have translucent bodies.
They can be observed with 10x microscopic magnification.
These microorganisms feed on human and animal dead skin flakes, and in some cases, on mold.
The other allergenic mites, including Cheyletiella, pseudoscorpions, and silverfish, are their natural predators.
Dust mites live for an average of 65-100 days. Female dust mites can lay 60 to 100 eggs. For a 10 week lifespan, the house dust mite can produce 2,000 droppings and even more enzyme covered dust particles.
They are especially common in humid environments, and in the US, about 84% of the beds include dust mites, while in Europe, the allergen was found in 68% of the beds of the surveyed homes.
Since it is only natural that humans shed 0.05-oz of dead skin cells, it is very likely that your home is filled with millions of these microorganisms in your bed, furniture, carpets, plush animals, and other places.
They tend to burrow themselves deep in these types of fibers, which means that you are most likely carrying them when you are traveling on vacation or on a business trip as well.
They thrive well best at temperatures of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and at 70% relative humidity.
While they are otherwise harmless, they and their fecal matter are common allergens that can cause discomfort or more serious allergic reactions in humans and in dogs, and other pets.
What is a dust mite allergy, and what are its symptoms?
Unlike with other bugs, which can cause allergic reactions after biting humans or animals, the allergies due to these microscopic creatures are usually caused by inhaling the mite’s fecal matter and skin, which makes up a lot of the dust you can find in homes.
The rest of the dust which accumulates in the home can come from pet hair and dander, mold spores, pollen spores, cockroach droppings, and body parts, and other similar waste and pollutants which enter your home one way or another.
When an allergic person breathes in these waste products, the immune system enters a defense mode and mechanism and releases antibodies which try to attack and fight off these normally harmless pollutants.
This reaction of the immune system can cause excessive sneezing, a runny nose, watery or itchy eyes, difficulty breathing, eczema, and other symptoms.
This type of allergy is incredibly common. In the USA only, about 20 million people are affected by it, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Long-term exposure to these allergens left without treatment or preventive measures can lead to more serious conditions such as sinus infections and to asthma.
Many people with this type of allergy will experience most symptoms all year round, but some may notice that the allergic reactions reach their peak throughout the hotter and more humid months.
Some of the most common symptoms of dust mite allergy include:
- Runny or congested nose
- Postnasal drip
- Itchy or watery eyes
- An itchy throat, nose, or roof of the mouth
- Chest tightness and pain
- Difficulty breathing and wheezing, especially when lying down and sleeping
- Trouble sleeping
- Red and itchy skin
- Skin rashes
- Facial pressure or pain due to sinus pressure
- Blue colored and swollen skin under the eyes.
- Nose rubbing – especially in children
- Difficulty talking
- Severe asthma attack – in more severe cases
Dust mite allergy can be mild to severe. In mild cases, the most common symptoms are usually a runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes but only occasionally.
Usually, the symptoms can become more severe after sweeping, dusting, or vacuuming your furniture and home, when the dust mite feces, and other waste become airborne, so they enter your respiratory system.
In chronic cases, the sneezing, coughing, facial pressure, congestion can become ongoing. Also, in severe cases, the dust mites can actually cause severe and life-threatening asthma attacks.
In some cases, eczema can be caused by dust mites, especially if the skin is broken and the dust mites enter through it.
In fact, studies show that over 80% of the children suffering from asthma are more sensitive to dust mites than other people.
Also, children suffering from eczema are often found to be sensitive or allergic to dust mites as well.
According to other studies, dust mite allergy can actually lead to the development of asthma and eczema.
This is why it is essential to prevent this risk by eliminating as many of the dust mites from home as possible.
When is it time to see a doctor about your dust mite allergy?
Due to the fact that the most common symptoms of dust mite allergy are very similar to those of the common cold, it may be difficult to distinguish one of these conditions from the other.
If these symptoms persist for over a week, or if they become more severe and cause difficulty breathing, audible wheezing of the lungs, difficulty sleeping, shortness of breath, then it is time to talk to a doctor.
Causes of dust mite allergy
Like other allergies, the dust mite allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly reacts to these foreign substances in your body by producing proteins or antibodies, which are supposed to protect you from the invaders.
The immune system of a person with allergies produces antibodies as soon as it recognizes a particular allergen as a potential threat to your body and wellbeing, even though it actually isn’t harmful or threatening.
Once the allergic person comes into contact with the allergen – by breathing it in or getting in physical contact with it, the immune system causes an inflammatory response, which after prolonged exposure can lead to chronic respiratory, skin, and other issues, including sinus infections, asthma, and eczema.
The dust mite allergens which we come into contact with are proteins from their droppings and from their decaying bodies.
How is dust mite allergy diagnosed?
If you and your doctor suspect that you may suffer from dust mite allergy after finding that your symptoms become worse when you come home, and especially when you go to bed, it is time for some diagnostic tests.
The allergist may use skin prick tests which include pricking the skin with tiny amounts of the dust mite allergen and watching for negative reactions in the next 15 or so minutes.
People who are allergic are more prone to develop a large bump which can be itchy and red around the tested area of the skin.
In some cases, the doctor may perform a blood test to screen for antibodies to the allergen in your blood as well.
How is dust mite allergy treated?
As with all allergies, the best way to treat it is to prevent contact with the allergen which means eliminating as much of the dust mites from your home, or other preventive measures.
Depending on the symptoms you are experiencing though, you may require immediate relief.
Some of the common treatments for dust mite allergy symptoms include:
OTC (over-the-counter) antihistamines
These medications work by blocking the histamine by your immune system when it comes across the allergen. Some of the most common OTC antihistamines are Allegra, Zyrtec, Benadryl, and Claritin.
These can alleviate the symptoms such as sneezing, itching or a runny nose.
These medicaments like Nasonex and Flonase can also help reduce the inflammation but with fewer side effects than the oral corticosteroids.
Some medications like Actifed or Claritin-D combine both antihistamines and decongestants.
These medications such as Sudafed or Afrin can help relieve a stuffy nose, sinus headaches, postnasal drip, and other similar symptoms. They can be over-the-counter or prescription medications which help break up the mucus in the nose and sinuses and shrink the tissue in the nasal passages to help make the breathing easier.
These are also known as immunotherapy and include injecting small amounts of the allergen causing your allergic symptoms periodically. These need to be administered periodically, so that the immunity against them gets built over time. Usually, allergy shots are administered every week for a few months or in some cases for several years.
Allergy shots are used rarely and are usually administered to patients with allergies which are not affected by the abovementioned allergy medications.
Anybody about to have this type of treatment should undergo through allergy testing beforehand.
Are you at risk of developing a dust mite allergy?
Although the cause of allergies is usually unknown, you may be at a higher risk of developing a dust mite allergy in the following cases:
- If you have a family history of dust mite allergies, especially if it has affected more than one member of your family
- Being exposed to large quantities of dust mites, especially as a child
- Being a young adult or child – chances of developing such an allergy earlier on in life are greater
Complications from dust mite allergies
If you already have a dust mite allergy, then prolonged exposure to the allergens can lead to complications, such as:
- Sinus infections – which are caused by ongoing inflammation of the nasal passage tissues caused by dust mites. This inflammation can obstruct the cavities within the nasal passages, which can lead to the development of sinusitis.
- Asthma – people with dust mite allergy and asthma are at greater risk of asthma attacks and could require emergency medical attention in case of severe asthma attacks.
Prevention of dust mite allergy
The best way to prevent a dust mite allergy is to limit the number of dust mites in your home.
This can be done by following the following tips to eliminate as many dust mites as possible, and to keep them from growing in numbers again:
- Maintain a relative humidity level of 50% or below by using a dehumidifier or an air conditioner
- Use an air purifier with a True HEPA filter and a pre-filter to capture as many as debris and allergens as possible
- Use hypoallergenic pillow and mattress covers that are resistant to the dust mites
- Wash all beddings and all your blankets once a week in water which is 130-140 degrees to kill off any dust mites
- Freeze bedding overnight to kill off dust mites if it cannot be washed
- The bedding in hot direct sunlight or in a hot dryer to kill off any dust mites
- Use bedding made of synthetic materials rather than traditional feathered or wool bedding
- The same goes for the dog or cat bedding at home – wash it frequently with hot water
- Get rid of the stuffed animals which cannot be washed
- If possible remove the carpets and rugs and replace them with hard floors
- If possible remove upholstered furniture and fabric curtains and draperies
- Dust regularly especially in the crevices and other hidden places where dust can get stuck
- Clean the dust with a damp or oiled rag and never with a dry one which will cause the allergens to become airborne
- Get rid of any unnecessary dust-collecting clutter
- Use a damp mop or steam cleaner to clean the floors instead of sweeping them
- Vacuum any upholstered furniture and carpeting and curtains as often as possible
- Buy a vacuum cleaner with a True HEPA filter, so that you can be sure that you are trapping the dust mites in instead of releasing them back into the air through the exhaust when you are vacuuming
- Vacuum or steam clean your mattress regularly before putting the mattress cover back on it
- If you are the allergic one, use a mask when cleaning and dusting the home
- Stay out of the cleaned room for about 20 minutes after the cleaning to avoid inhaling the dust mite waste and debris
- Keep your clothing in a closet with a tightly closed door
- You can create a safe room for the allergic person, where you can eliminate all potential hiding places for the dust mites, clean on a daily basis, use an air purifier and humidifier (if necessary) and don’t let the pets or people with outdoor clothes and shoes to enter
A good starting point, if you have dust mite allergy, is to read The Eczema Diet and start using Skin Friend. Then if your skin is not seeing signs of improvement after 6 weeks, book a consultation with Karen Fischer as she can tailor an eczema program to suit your individual needs.
Some shocking and surprising facts about dust mites you may not know
- Not all house dust contains dust mites and dust mite debris, because there are some areas where the humidity levels are lower than 55% consistently and they cannot survive there
- A dust mite is much smaller than a grain of sand
- They are not insects, but rather arachnids with spiders, shrimps, lobsters, and spiders being their close relatives
- Dust mites do not drink water or urinate, which is why need a moist environment to absorb the water via their glands located on their front legs
- Dust mites most commonly dry from drowning during the process of washing, but a hot dryer or spending a night in the freezer can also kill them
- Some allergic people may get allergic reactions from consuming grain flours containing dust mites
- About 10% of the entire human population and about 80% of all allergy sufferers are allergic to dust mites and their waste
- Look for a closely woven hypoallergenic mattress cover, and make sure that the manufacturer is certified by the allergy associations because dust mites can actually penetrate some of the mattress protectors which are not so closely and tightly woven
- Sleeping in a bunk bed is not recommended for kids with dust mite allergy because the mites and their debris may fall down to the lower bed from the mattress and bedding of the upper one
- The weight of an average mattress doubles in weight after 10 years from the dust mite infestation in it and the pillow will increase its weight by 10% for just a year due to the dust mites and waste in them
- The dust mite is the main allergen causing perennial allergic rhinitis, which is a persistent runny nose and nasal congestion all-year-round
- Every person sheds about 1 to 3 pounds of dead skin every year, and it is the favorite food of the dust mites
- One single dust mite can produce about 1,000 waste and debris which are the allergens causing dust mite allergies
- A half a teaspoon of dust can contain 1,000 dust mites and 250,000 allergenic debris from them
- The reproduction and thriving of the house dust mites peaks in the hottest and most humid months of July and August
- Dogs, cats, and other pets can have dust mite allergy as well
As you can see, dust mites cannot be seen with the naked eye, but for people with allergies to their waste, they can be extremely harmful and in some cases dangerous.
This is why, it is essential to keep your home as free of dust mites as possible, and also to take the necessary precautions to determine whether a family member has such an allergy so that you can seek treatment and take preventive actions in time.
Left untreated, dust mite allergy can lead to serious chronic conditions including asthma and sinus infections.
So, good luck with your quest against these tiny microorganisms which can be pretty harmful to both us humans and to dogs and other pets as well.