I’ve just been diagnosed with a house dust mite allergy. Not a huge shock given my other allergies. And it isn’t going to require much change in routine for me given our whole family is allergic to dust mites! We’ve been actively trying to minimise dust mites in our home for over a decade now. So I’ve well and truly done my research on how to get rid of dust mites. We’ve implemented lots of the advice given by our allergy specialists, with some success. Here’s what does and doesn’t help our very allergic family.
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What exactly are dust mites?
If you have allergy testing for dust mites, you might notice that tests are done for 2 different types. One is the European house dust mite (Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus) and the other is the American house dust mite (Dermatophagoides farinae). Both are extremely tiny, about 0.3mm long (0.01 inches). You can’t see them without a microscope. They are related to ticks and spiders.
These tiny little mites live in dust in our homes and thrive in warm, humid environments. Not very pleasant, but house dust mites eat the dead skin cells that we shed every day. That’s why they thrive in our beds, soft furnishings and carpets.
House dust mites themselves aren’t the problem. They don’t bite or sting. If you are allergic to dust mites, you are actually allergic to their droppings and the exoskeletons they shed. Dust mite poo. A bit revolting when you think too much about it.
Symptoms of dust mite allergy
Dust mite allergy can cause similar symptoms to pollen allergies. These hay fever symptoms include:
- itchy, watery eyes;
- sneezing and a runny nose;
- nasal congestion and sinus issues; and
For people with asthma, dust mites can also be an asthma trigger, causing coughing, shortness or breath and wheezing.
In our experience, dust mite allergy can also worsen eczema (atopic dermatitis).
Can you get rid of dust mites?
There are definitely ways to kill dust mites. You can kill them with:
- heat, by hot washing;
- cold, by putting small items in the freezer; or
- direct sunlight.
Even if you do kill the dust mites this way, it doesn’t remove the allergens (the dust mite poo). You’ll still need to wash or vacuum thoroughly.
You can get rid of the places that dust mites like to live, by removing carpets and curtains. Special covers can also stop dust mites getting into bedding.
However it isn’t really possible to get rid of dust mites completely. That’s why allergy specialists talk about “dust mite minimisation” strategies.
How to reduce exposure to dust mites
These are the steps we’ve taken to reduce dust mite allergens in our home.
Hot washing bedding
Hot washing of bed linen is really important, because we spend so much time sleeping (or not sleeping) there.
I wash our sheets and pillow cases every week on a setting hotter than 55C (130F). They also get put through the tumble dryer for some extra heat (and because I can’t hang sheets outside due to pollen allergies).
We have dust mite covers on everything, but I do try and wash the kids pillows and quilts reasonably often and replace pillows regularly (every few years).
Dust mite covers
Dust mite covers have made a big difference for us. We use them not only on mattresses but also all of our pillows and our quilts.
The most important features for dust mite covers are:
- they fully encase your mattress, quilt/duvet/doona and pillows and have a quality zip closure;
- the weave is tight enough to stop the dust mites and their allergens from penetrating the cover.
After this, a lot of what makes a good dust mite cover comes down to personal preference and budget.
If you have children, you might want dust mite covers that are also waterproof (with a waterproof membrane backing). We’ve used these with our children. The downside of this is that these covers aren’t breathable and can sometimes trap the air inside your pillow and make it harder to get a comfortable shape when lying down. This is usually fixed by undoing the zip a little and letting the air out while shaping the pillow.
Some dust mite covers – even if they are made of 100% cotton – can feel a little crinkly at first. They can even make a rustling sound when you are lying on the pillow, which isn’t ideal. Often this can be fixed by washing first to soften the covers.
In our experience, the more expensive covers do tend to have a softer feel straight out of the packaging.
Which dust mite covers do we use?
On my bed I have covers made by an Australian company, Mite Guard. These are quite soft and don’t change the feel of bed at all. We’ve also used AllergEnd Plus, another Australian brand, for many years. These are 100% cotton covers with a very tight weave to create a dust mite barrier. For the kids beds we’ve used Protect-A-Bed Allerzip* encasements because they are waterproof but still breathable. If you do prefer a 100% cotton cover, you can always use the dust mite covers with a regular mattress protector over the top. But it does mean extra washing!
Another brand that comes highly recommended from reviews, but which we haven’t personally tried, is US brand Allersoft*. Allersoft National Allergy makes 100% breathable cotton covers for mattresses, pillows and duvets. They have 3-4 micron pore size to stop dust mites getting through.
Dust mite covers also need to be washed reasonably regularly, not for effectiveness but just in the same way that all bedding needs to be cleaned.
Managing soft toys
Some allergists suggest that you should remove any soft toys or stuffed animals from your child’s bedroom. Soft toys certainly do attract a lot of dust. But they also bring a lot of joy and can be a great comfort to our little people. I could never bring myself to stop my child from enjoying cuddly friends, especially at bed time.
Instead of going without soft toys, just limit the number and make sure that you clean them regularly. Did you know that you can kill dust mites on soft toys by placing them in a plastic bag in then freezer? Once the mites are dead, you can give the toys a good vacuum. Placing toys in direct sunlight can also be effective at killing mites. We never tried this as we also have pollen allergies to contend with. The best method I found for dealing with dust mites and soft toys was simply to wash them. Preferably have soft toys that are machine washable and put them through the washing machine, and even the dryer if that’s possible.
I’m not a fanatical house cleaner, but yes, you will need to clean regularly to keep dust mites under control.
Bedrooms are a really important place to start, but living areas are important too. As well as regular hot washing of bedding, make sure to:
- vacuum regularly, including under furniture and beds and any rugs and any upholstered furniture like couches;
- clean carpets regularly; and
- keep curtains and blinds free from dust as much as possible.
It’s preferable to use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove more dust and airborne particles. We love our Dyson cordless stick vaccum, which has whole machine HEPA filters. I have the V8 Absolute* model, but I would love to upgrade to a V11 Absolute* with its bigger barrel.
In an ideal world we’d all have hard flooring and blinds instead of curtains, but that isn’t always realistic. You may be renting and unable to change your furnishings at all. We live in an older home with carpets and curtains in some rooms. I’m working on replacing all the carpet in our bedrooms with newer more allergy and asthma friendly types and have changed more of our curtains to blinds, but in the meantime these areas just need a bit more attention.
Air purifiers and dehumidifiers
I’ve seen a lot of advertisements for air purifiers for the home which claim to reduce allergens in the air. To be honest, we don’t have one yet. I do think a small portable air purifier would be a good idea for our child’s room. I’ve got my eye on this Breville Easy Air Purifier* which gets good reviews and is recommended by the Sensitive Choice program for asthma and allergies.
We do have a dehumidifier in our bedroom though. We use it in winter to keep the moisture levels down as we get a lot of condensation against our windows. The main reason is to keep the room drier and prevent mould, but given dust mites love warm, humid areas it’s probably helping our dust mite allergies too. Ours is a few years old now but is a similar model to this Delonghi dehumidifier*, and has served us really well.
I do a lot of washing. That’s what happens in bigger families. But it is also very important for dust mite allergies. Clothes – even if hanging in a closet – can collect a lot of dust. Items that you don’t wear often and perhaps don’t wash every time you wear (like scarves, jumpers, jackets and coats) can be home to dust mites too.
Dust mite allergies, cleaning and asthma
If you have asthma that is triggered by dust mite allergy, there are some steps you can take to help with exposure while cleaning.
My child has asthma, so I tend to do household cleaning (dusting, vacuuming) when he isn’t home. These activities can really stir up the allergens in the air. If you have dust mite allergies and can avoid doing the cleaning by getting another family member to do it, even better. I am allergic to dust mites too, but don’t suffer from asthma, so I don’t get out of the cleaning that easily!
Another good tip is to do any dusting with an electrostatic or damp cloth so that the allergens stick to the cloth instead of becoming airborne.
What else can help manage dust mite allergies?
So if the answer to how to get rid of dust mites is that you can’t completely. how to we live with them?
Using dust mite minimisation strategies will definitely help keep the allergen levels lower.
Concentrating on beds and bedrooms makes a big difference, as this is where we spend a lot of time.
If you still have allergy symptoms, talk to your doctor about the best way to manage them. This could be by taking antihistamines, using an allergy nasal spray, or both. I currently use both every day – Zyrtec* (certrizine) and Nasonex* (same as Flonase*). Your doctor or pharmacist will be able to give you advice about which types of medication might be helpful for you.
For severe dust mite allergies that aren’t managed with medication alone, talk to your allergy specialist about the possibility of doing immunotherapy.
One of our children has already done immunotherapy for house dust mites. This was sublingual immunotherapy (“SLIT”), which involved putting drops of dust mite extract under the tongue every day for a few years. My partner and I are both going to be doing traditional immunotherapy (“allergy shots”) this year. I am due to start once the allergy season is over as I am also having shots for various tree and grass pollens. This is going to be a long term commitment over a number of years. You read more about starting immunotherapy injections here – Important questions to ask about starting allergy shots (immunotherapy).
If dust mite allergy triggers your asthma, make sure that you keep your asthma well controlled by following your asthma management plan. Take any preventers regularly and talk to your doctor about other treatments such as immunotherapy.
References and more information
If you suspect you might have a house dust mite allergy, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to an allergy specialist for allergy testing. You can read my first hand account of allergy testing here – What is allergy testing for hay fever really like?
Did you know that if you are allergic to dust mites, you could also be allergic to edible crickets? Read more in our post Edible cricket allergy? High in protein, risky for some
To find out more about dust mite allergies and reducing dust mite allergens in your home, have a look at some of these great resources:
- Australian Society of Clinical Immunology & Allergy Allergen Minimisation fact sheet
- Asthma Australia “Dust and Asthma: How to Minimise Dust in the Home”
- Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia’s Allergen Minimisation posters.