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Dust mites, asthma and allergies: Steps you can take to reduce the symptoms

Date posted: 11 November 2016

People often talk about being “allergic to dust" or finding that dust triggers their asthma symptoms. This is because house dust mites are a common cause of asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema right across the globe. These tiny creatures are virtually invisible to the naked eye because of their small size (just 0.2–0.3 mm long, on average) and their translucent bodies – but unfortunately they dwell in every home, no matter how clean you keep it. There are, however, proactive steps you can take to help limit the dust mite population in your home, therefore reducing allergy and asthma symptoms.

Where do dust mites live?

Dust mites feed on flakes of shed human skin, as well as other organic detritus, so our home is also their ideal home. As a result, they often inhabit our mattresses, pillows, sofas, cushions, carpets and even stuffed toys.

Do dust mites cause allergies and asthma?

Dust mites are a very common trigger for asthma in those who are allergic to them. The dust mite's gut contains potent digestive enzymes that live on in their faeces, and can cause allergic reactions such as wheezing. The mite's exoskeleton can also contribute to allergic reactions.

You might notice that you or your child suffer more symptoms when dust is disturbed - for example, when you're moving furniture, dusting surfaces, or making a bed. Or you might just notice that your asthma symptoms are usually worse when you are indoors rather than outdoors.

Simply stepping on a carpet can disperse the allergens into the air where they will be inhaled by anyone inhabiting that space. Young children who have never before suffered from allergies can suddenly develop asthma after exposure to these particles, experiencing a range of unpleasant symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.

How can I control the dust mite population in my home?

There are some straightforward steps you can take which could help to reduce the number of house dust mites in your home:

  1. Dust surfaces and hoover carpets and fabric furniture as often as possible. Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter (see Choosing a vacuum cleaner, below), if possible. If practical, ask any asthma sufferers to leave the room while you are doing this.
  2. Wash your bedding at least once a week in hot water of at least 60°C (any cooler and you won't kill the dust mites).
  3. Consider using dust-proof covers on your pillows and mattresses.
  4. Dust mites love living and reproducing in warm, damp environments.  Only make up clean beds with bedding that has been thoroughly dried beforehand.
  5. Wash your child’s soft toys in hot water regularly, once again drying them thoroughly before letting your child play with them again.
  6. Use a carpet cleaner to thoroughly clean your carpets and items of upholstery.

Choosing a vacuum cleaner

If you are considering investing in a vacuum cleaner you will need to do some research to make sure you buy or hire one that offers an effective type of filtration system to help you control the dust mite population.

Many use HEPA filters as part of their filtration systems and this is beneficial for asthma and allergy sufferers, because it traps the fine particles of dust mite faeces (as well as pollen, for hay fever sufferers) which trigger allergy and asthma symptoms.

For the HEPA filter to be effective, however, the vacuum cleaner has to be designed to ensure all air drawn into the machine is expelled through the filter, with no air leaking past it. Check product descriptions and reviews carefully before you buy.

Using an air purifier

If you have asthma symptoms, an air filter or room air cleaner may help you to breathe better by removing common pollutants - including dust mites - from the air in a room.

An air purifier will only capture dust mite fragments that have become airborne, however – they are simply not powerful enough to lift dust from the surfaces. This means you need to continue with your normal cleaning regimen of dusting and vacuuming – although hopefully the air purifier will help in your overall allergy / asthma control strategy.

As is the case with vacuum cleaners, not all air purifiers are equal in terms of their effectiveness at removing allergens. You need to carry out some thorough research before deciding which model to buy. The HEPA filters themselves vary in size and construction quality, and other design factors may prevent an air purifier from being truly effective - if the non-purified air is able to leak around the filter, for example (just as is the case for your vacuum cleaner).

You also need to run your air purifier at a fairly fast speed for it to be effective. If you buy one with a noisy fan, and decide to turn it down to a low speed to reduce the noise, you will also be reducing its impact on your home environment. It is better to invest in a quieter machine, or to turn it onto high for a couple of hours before you go to bed, then switch it onto a low speed for the remainder of the night.

Many asthma sufferers have one unit in their main living area, and another in the bedroom. A dehumidifier could also help to lower your home's humidity levels and potentially help to inhibit the growth of dust mite populations.

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Take proactive steps to limit the dust mite population in your home.

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