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Saying Good Night to the Dust Mite

What You Can Do

“The confusion about allergen avoidance is not about whether it really works, but whether it’s possible to do in an ordinary house,” says Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, a professor of medicine and microbiology, and the chief of the division of allergy, asthma and clinical immunology at the University of Virginia Health System. “And the answer is yes, but it’s got to be done seriously.”

According to Platts-Mills, a leading dust mite researcher, there are a few keys:

• The most important plan of attack is to make sure your home is too dry for the mites to survive. Maintain a humidity level of between 40 and 50 per cent, and don’t use a humidifier, even in the winter. Consider purchasing a hygrometer (available at most major building supply stores for as little as $20) to monitor the level of moisture.

Visit the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s website for information on hygrometers. Platts-Mills adds, “Basements are almost impossible to keep dry, so don’t work in basements and don’t live in basements if you’re mite allergic.”

• A recent European study discovered that older mattresses and poor ventilation, along with sleeping on lower floors of a home, contribute to higher concentrations of dust mites in mattresses. Platts-Mills considers a mattress used for more than five years to be old, depending on how it has been treated. Ensuring that your bedroom has proper ventilation, is not in the basement or too humid, and replacing your mattress (unless it has been covered with dust-mite impermeable covers the whole time) every few years will diminish the number of mites that bunk in with you.

• Encase your mattress, duvet and pillows in mite-proof covers. Plastic is best for containing mites, but not the most comfortable to lie on. A cozier option is tightly woven fabric covers, which are usually made from polyester or a cotton/poly blend and are designed to hold up to frequent washings. Several brands are now on the market, including Pristine, which is made of the same material as typewriter ribbon. It tested as highly effective at keeping mites from getting into your bedding, and at keeping those already inhabiting your mattress from escaping.

• Though asthmatics and those with dust mite allergies have long been told to use synthetic-filled pillows and duvets, research has emerged over the past few years that indicates feather bedding may be a better option. This is because the tightly woven cotton used to keep the feathers from poking through the fabric casing also acts as a barrier to mites.

• If using plastic bed covers, wipe them down once a week with a damp cloth, and let them dry completely before dressing the bed. Cloth bedding, including fabric mite-blocking covers, should be washed weekly in water at least 130 degrees F.

• Snuggly stuffed animals can harbor just as many mites as a pillow. Every eight weeks or so, place the toys in the freezer for 24 hours. Follow up with a spin in the washer and dryer (cool temperatures are OK because the freezing kills the mites). Also look for toys labeled with the Asthma Friendly brand, a line that’s received the sanction of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

• Mites have sticky feet that cling to soft surfaces like carpet fibre and upholstery. While a good quality HEPA filter vacuum will reduce their numbers, Platts-Mills says vacuuming can’t solve the problem of dust mites in the carpet. Avoid wall-to-wall carpets and opt for hardwood, tile or vinyl flooring if possible, and minimize plush furnishings.

• Clean all hard surfaces at least once a week with a damp cloth, and get rid of clutter that will attract mites. Use a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum to rid the house of dirt and pollen, and to deprive the mites of their food source: skin cells shed by the family and the pets.

• As for HEPA air-filtering devices, while they’re great for dealing with smoke and lightweight pollen and dander, Platts-Mills says that because dust mite allergen doesn’t remain airborne for long, they aren’t effective for this allergy.

Platts-Mills has seen first-hand how effective these techniques can be for those with dust mite allergy and asthma. “Over my career, hundreds of my patients have changed their lives,” he says. “They get it right, and I never see them again.”

General statistics/studies: Prevalences of positive skin test responses to 10 common allergens in the U.S. population: Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey; First National Allergen Survey; Distribution and Determinants of House Dust Mite Allergen in Europe: The European Community Respiratory Health Survey II.

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
The Asthma Society of Canada
Mayo Clinic

First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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