How to Get Rid of Dust Mites, According to Allergists
It's all about preventing the situations these pests thrive in.
Dust mites are public enemy No. 1 for many people with indoor allergies. These microscopic pests can cause intense allergy symptoms as you hang out in your home, a place that's supposed to be a sanctuary.
It's hard to fight a villain you can't see, and that makes it frustrating to try to get rid of dust mites. Luckily, allergists we spoke to have some good advice. But before you find out more about eradicating them from your home, you have to know more about the critters and what makes them thrive.
What are dust mites?
Dust mites are insect-like pests that usually live in house dust, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). "Dust mites are tiny and cannot be seen by the naked eye," allergist-immunologist Priya Patel, MD, assistant professor in clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, tells Health. Dust mites like to eat flakes of dead skin (aka dander) shed by people and pets.
If you're not allergic to dust mites, they won't be an issue for you. But they are one of the most common airborne allergens, Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network in New York, tells Health, so for many people they can spark an allergy attack and make allergy and asthma symptoms worse.
Why dust mites make you sick
Dust mites don't bite—instead, you get sick from being exposed to dust mite feces, aka poop. "The proteins in the fecal particles are perfectly sized to cause allergy symptoms in those who are dust mite-allergic," Dr. Patel explains.
How much of these pesky mites you're exposed to matters, David Corry, MD, a professor of medicine in the section of immunology, allergy, and rheumatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, tells Health. "Dust mite allergens are among the most abundant foreign substances people are exposed to, depending on the exact house," he says. And if your home is particularly packed with dust mites, it raises the odds you'll have symptoms.
Where do dust mites live?
Dust mites can technically live anywhere there's dust, but you can usually find them in the following spots, per the NIEHS:
- Upholstered furniture
It's extremely common to have dust mites in your bed: 84% of homes in the US have detectable levels of dust mites in at least one bed, according to a survey published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
What are the symptoms of dust mite allergies?
Per Dr. Corry, dust mite allergy symptoms can include:
- Itchy, watery eyes
- A drippy nose
- Postnasal drip
- Itching in your ear canal
- Skin itching
- Worsening eczema
How to get rid of dust mites
Here's the thing: You can't actually eliminate them completely. "It is almost impossible to completely get rid of dust mites in the home," Dr. Patel says. Still, there are "some things that you can do in the home to help decrease dust mite load without needing a professional," she adds.
That means knowing the conditions that can increase your risk of having a thriving dust mite population in your home in the first place, according to Dr. Corry. Some of the big risk factors include humidity, large areas of fixed carpeting, and lots of dust mite food depositing into the same space (like several people and pets shedding dander in one area). Not changing your bedding or cleaning often enough can help create an environment that dust mites love. Once you know the risk factors, you can better target the elimination and prevention of dust mites.
The NIEHS specifically recommends taking the following steps:
- Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner to maintain humidity levels at or below 50%.
- Cover your mattress and pillows in dust-proof or allergen-impermeable covers.
- Wash all of your bedding and blankets once a week in hot water—130 to 140 degrees—to kill dust mites. If your bedding can't be washed, you can freeze it overnight.
- Replace wool or feathered bedding products with synthetic materials, and traditional stuffed animals with washable ones.
- In your bedrooms, replace wall-to-wall carpeting with bare floors.
- Remove fabric curtains and upholstered furniture from your bedroom whenever possible.
- Use a damp mop or rag to remove dust (a dry cloth stirs up allergens).
- Use a double-layered microfilter bag or a HEPA filter in your vacuum cleaner.
- Wear a mask while vacuuming, and stay out of the vacuumed area for 20 minutes after vacuuming to allow dust and allergens to settle.
How long it takes to get rid of dust mites "depends on the intervention and the specific environment," Dr. Corry says. But "you can achieve dramatic reductions in mite allergens by removing all carpets, old mattresses, old pillows and cloth furniture, and doing a thorough cleaning," he adds.
Unfortunately, getting rid of dust mites isn't a one-and-done treatment. They come back, which is why regular cleanings are important. Think of the fight against dust mites as more of an ongoing war rather than just one battle.
What to do if you get rid of dust mites and still have allergy symptoms
If you've followed all the steps to dramatically reduce the dust mite population and you're still struggling with indoor allergy symptoms, Dr. Patel says it's time to talk to an allergist.
They can help come up with a comprehensive plan that may include allergy medications, like nasal sprays and oral antihistamines, to help reduce the symptoms you're experiencing. Your allergist may even recommend that you undergo immunotherapy treatments through the use of allergy shots that expose you to tiny amounts of dust mite proteins, building up your exposure over time. The ultimate goal: to help reduce or stop your dust mite allergies. "We can lessen your dust mite allergy over time," Dr. Parikh says.
Again, dust mites will be lurking around your home in some capacity, no matter how much and how intensely you clean. But if you do regular cleanings and take other steps to take out those pesky dust mites, the odds are high that you'll be able to breathe easier at home in the future.
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