Dust mites are microscopic creatures that thrive in warm, humid areas and feed on shed skin cells and pet dander. While dust mites do not bite, they can cause problems for people with allergies, asthma, eczema, and other related conditions.
What are Dust Mites and Where do They Come From?
Dust mites are microscopic pests belonging to the arachnid family that feed on shed skin cells an dander from people and pets. Adult dust mites are only about .5 millimeters in size and require a microscope to be seen clearly. They are globular in shape and clear to creamy white in color with tiny hairs all over their bodies.
Dust mites go through five life stages with molting between each stage, and thrive in warm, humid homes. Optimal temperatures for dust mites range between 75 and 80 degrees F with a relative humidity of 70% to 80%. And the cleanliness of your home is not an indicator of dust mite activity — in fact, they thrive in clean homes.
Adult mites live 1 to 2 months and females can lay up to 50 eggs. Dust mites tend to be found in beds, furniture, carpets, and other areas that see a lot of human and pet activity — a single mattress can be home to thousands of dust mites.
Dust Mite Allergens
While dust mites have been around for a long time, it wasn’t until a little over 300 years ago that scientists started to take note — at least indirectly. In 1698, English physician Sir John Floyer was the first to make an association between bronchial asthma and the presence of house dust.
But it wasn’t until the 1920s that scientists started to delve deeper into the connection between house dust and asthma. Then, in 1967, Dutch physician Reindert Voorhorst discovered that Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus — house dust mites — were contributing to allergens in house dust.
It’s actually the bodies, shed skin, and fecal matter of dust mites that contain the allergenic proteins responsible for causing so much havoc for people. Daily activity, such as walking, housekeeping and playing cause these tiny particles to become airborne where they’re inhaled.
Dust Mites and Human Dead Skin Cells
People shed about 30,000 to 40,000 skin cells each hour. At the end of each day, we’ve shed up to 1.5 grams of dead skin cells. That’s more than enough to feed at least one million dust mites. But mites will also eat pet dander, so there’s more than enough food for dust mites in your home at any given time.
Dead skin cells can fall anywhere, meaning it’s possible to have dust mites on every surface of your house — not just your mattress. They prefer areas like beds, pillows, sheets, blankets, chairs, couches, drapes, carpets, stuffed toys, and other fabric-covered furniture that holds moisture well.
These areas usually have higher relative humidity in addition to skin cells because we exhale vapor while we’re snuggled up relaxing.
Are Dust Mites Dangerous?
In comparison to other pests like ticks and mosquitoes, which carry disease, dust mites do not transmit illness. Dust mites don’t bite — they’re more interested in your dead skin. But if you’re asthmatic or have bad allergies, they could increase your symptoms.
Dust Mite Feces and Shed Skin
The presence of dust mites can still be hazardous to your health, especially if you have allergies, asthma, eczema, and other respiratory and dermatological conditions. Their bodies, shed skin, and feces contain proteins that trigger allergic reactions.
Considering that a single dust mite produces about 20 droppings a day, and your house could potentially host thousands if not millions of dust mites, you could be wading in allergens. And there’s evidence that it isn’t just people who already have allergies and asthma that are affected — dust mite allergens can actually cause asthma in children.
The bodies and shed skin of dust mites can also trigger allergies and asthma, since they contain, to a lesser degree, the same proteins as their fecal matter. And prolonged exposure can increase your risk of developing allergies.
How to Know if you Have Dust Mites
Your first inclination that you have dust mites might be allergies that seem to persist year-round. Unlike seasonal allergies, dust mite activity doesn’t ease in the fall.
Symptoms of dust mite allergies are similar to hay fever or allergic rhinitis, include sneezing, runny or itchy nose, itchy or watery eyes, itchy roof of mouth and throat, and nasal congestion. Dust mite allergies may be milder than typical seasonal allergies, too.
For those with asthma, a dust mite allergy can lead to more serious symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest tightness, and wheezing. It can also cause a severe asthma attack.
For people with eczema or atopic dermatitis, contact with dust mite allergens can lead to itching and skin redness.
In order to be sure that dust mites are causing these issues you’ll need to schedule a visit with a doctor, who will take into account your symptoms and possibly administer a blood or skin test. There are also detection kits that measure the presence of dust mites using a reagent on dust samples collected from different areas of the house.
Treating for Dust Mites
There are two main approaches to treating allergies caused by mites: Treat the patient, and treat the environment. To treat the patient, talk to your doctor, to treat the environment you can take the following steps:
Remove or modify. Dust mites are typically found in mattresses, bedding, upholstered furniture and carpeting. While you can’t necessarily remove your mattress, you can replace carpeting with hardwood, tile, or vinyl flooring, which are not as hospitable to dust mites. If you need carpet, use area rugs or low-pile carpeting.
Rather than using upholstered furniture, buy wooden or leather furniture or use plastic covers. You can also use allergen-impermeable covers in your bedroom to protect mattresses and box springs. Covers that zip up contain allergens so they aren’t inhaled while you sleep.
Don’t allow children with dust mite allergies to sleep with stuffed animals, which might have higher dust mite populations. And replace drapes with plastic or wood shades instead. The idea is to avoid hard-to-clean materials where dust gathers.
Reduce humidity. Dust mites thrive in high humidity, between 70% and 80%. They have a difficult time surviving in less than 50% humidity. You can use dehumidifiers inside your home. Removing carpets and using plastic covers on upholstery can also aid in keeping humidity in check, since certain materials retain moisture better than others.
Another thing to keep an eye on is your air filter — keep your filter clean and replace it regularly to control airborne allergens.
Keep things clean. Even though mites can thrive in clean homes, you still need to maintain proper sanitation. While regular vacuuming has not been shown to reduce the presence of dust mites, it can reduce the amount of dust buildup in your home.
Be sure to use a vacuum with a HEPA filtration system so that allergens are trapped inside the bag rather than recirculated in your home during vacuuming. Air purifiers can also help remove airborne allergens.
Dust mite pesticides. There are a few mite-killing products that can be used to treat carpets. They contain benzyl benzoate and will kill mites, but not necessarily help improve allergy symptoms, since the bodies, which host the allergens, are left behind.
While it’s impossible to completely eliminate dust mites, you can still limit their numbers and reduce their impact on allergy-prone individuals. The most important thing is to prevent the accumulation of dust.