Guide: DUST MITE ALLERGIES
When you spend time indoors, do you struggle with a runny nose, red eyes or coughing? You may be dealing with a dust mite allergy. Medically speaking, this should be referred to as a house dust mite allergy, since the little arachnids that are found in dust produce the allergens that trouble you. The good news is that a lot can be done to make a dust mite allergy more bearable – simply fighting off the mites is often enough to improve the symptoms. Read more about how you can manage your dust mite allergy, how you can identify an allergy to dust mites and how it develops.
Dust allergies — what now?
There are three approaches to combating a dust mite allergy:
- Avoiding contact with the allergen by limiting the number of dust mites in your environment;
- Treating the symptoms with medication;
- Treating the causes of the allergy with desensitization.
First and foremost, you should talk to a doctor to confirm that what you are contending with is actually a dust mite allergy. If you are experiencing these symptoms when you spend time indoors, the problem could also be an allergy to pets or mold. The best person to contact is an allergy specialist.
And we should take a moment here to mention that leaving a dust mite allergy untreated can make it easier for other allergies to develop. When your mucous membranes are constantly inflamed, this may trigger similar reactions elsewhere in the body: the inflammation may shift to other sites in the body. For example, the symptoms could shift from the upper respiratory tract to the lower respiratory system and cause asthma to develop. In other words, you should definitely take steps to counteract the dust mite allergy.
Dust mite allergies – reducing allergens
This is the step that needs to come first in treating any dust mite allergy. Allergic symptoms can often be brought down to a tolerable level or may even disappear altogether when you minimize allergens.
Dust mites are a mere 0.1 to 0.5 millimeters in size, which means that they cannot even be seen with the naked eye. The fact that there are so many of them in dust is totally normal and is in no way a sign of poor hygiene. The reason why dust mites like living in human environments is that they mainly live off of skin flakes, and every one of us sheds one to two grams of skin every day. And the place you can find the most mites is where the skin comes in direct contact with other things, such as our beds. As a result, the allergic symptoms of a dust mite allergy are especially problematic at night and in the early mornings. So the first place you need to declare war on dust mites is in your bedroom.
Most of these creatures live in your mattress where they can find enough to eat and have a place to set up camp. A mattress encasing that is impervious to mite proteins keeps the allergens away from your mucus membranes. The pore size of these encasings is 0.5 micrometers or less — not even half of a thousandth of a millimeter. The seams have to be tightly sealed so that the proteins the mites release and the mites themselves have no chance of making their way out. At the same time, however, the encasing has to be breathable so you won’t sweat at night. Some health-insurance companies will assume the costs for antiallergenic encasings if you have been diagnosed with a dust mite allergy.
There are other kinds of encasings for your pillow and duvet that can help reduce the symptoms of the allergy. Once every three months, these encasings should be washed at high temperatures (60° C); anything less than that will not kill off the mites. The bedclothes themselves should be replaced every week.
To reduce the number of mites in your bedroom, you should try to minimize dustcatchers as much as possible:
- No drawers under your bed
- No long heavy curtains
- No open shelves
- If possible, no stuffed animals; if you do have them, they need to be washed regularly
Tip: If you cannot wash the stuffed animals at high temperatures, you can put them in the freezer for 12 hours and then wash them at a low temperature. Extreme cold kills off the dust mites, and then cleaning them afterward eliminates the allergens.
Otherwise, the main thing to do is dust and air out regularly. Dust mites prefer an environment with 65-80% humidity. If you can open your window and air out three to four times a day for five to fifteen minutes, you can lower the humidity in your bedroom to 45 to 55%. The room temperature should be no more than 18-20° C, because mites prefer warmth. They flourish at temperatures of 25°.
There are special mite-killing substances known as acaricides, but it is not really clear whether or not they help. Scientific research into this topic has yielded contradictory outcomes.
If you want to determine whether the anti-mite efforts in your home are effective, you can quantify your results using a mite test from the pharmacy. It allows you to measure the amount of allergens per gram of dust. If this level is under two milligrams, the risk of complaints falls significantly.
Dust mite allergies — medication
The symptoms of a dust mite allergy can be relieved with medication. Not only are antihistamines an option, but glucocorticoids and adrenaline sprays can help as well. Please note, though, that medicines can have side effects. Please talk to your doctor before you start taking OTC allergy medicines.
The actual cause of the allergy — the immune system’s excessive reaction to a harmless substance — does not disappear completely in response to medicine, though.
Dust mite allergy — desensitization
Desensitization (also known as hyposensitization) allows the body to fight the substances that trigger the allergy. The immune system gradually becomes accustomed to the allergens that are problematic. Over the course of three years, your doctor will expose you to mite proteins at controlled and regular intervals. This involves administering either injections or drops.
Desensitization is especially effective in children or in adults who have only recently experienced the onset of the allergy. Ideally, the allergy will resolve completely, or at least the symptoms will be dramatically reduced.
How can you identify a dust mite allergy?
A dust mite allergy involves symptoms similar to hay fever:
- Sniffles with a runny nose or nasal congestion, the urge to sneeze, swollen mucous membranes
- A productive cough, and in extreme cases even shortness of breath
- Red and watery eyes, with or without itching
- Your skin may itch as well
Unlike hay fever, however, a dust mite allergy will afflict you all year round, and the symptoms will be worse indoors. The problem reaches its peak in autumn, since many mites die and allergens are released when the time of year starts in which people start heating their homes and indoor air gets dryer. A dust mite allergy also grows worse when you dust in your home, which obviously stirs up allergens. The runny nose and other symptoms are most intense at night and in the morning in bed, since that is where the mites like to spend time.
How are dust mite allergies diagnosed?
Your doctor will start by asking you certain questions. One important factor in the initial diagnosis is highlighting when and where the allergic symptoms manifest.
To confirm the suspicion that a dust mite allergy is present, the doctor has to perform an allergy test. The most common kind is called a prick test. Here different allergens, including mite proteins, are applied to the forearm. The skin is then gently scratched with a needle so that the substances can enter the skin. If the area turns red after 15 to 20 minutes or swells somewhat (comparable to a mosquito bite), you have an allergy.
A blood test can also indicate the presence of a dust mite allergy. Another method called a RAST test detects whether the body produces antibodies to the mite allergens.
If this procedure does not clearly indicate whether or not you are allergic, the doctor can also conduct a provocation test in which the allergen is sprayed directly on the nasal mucosa. Occasionally, intense allergic reactions have taken place in response to this test, which is why it has to be performed under medical supervision.
How does a dust mite allergy develop?
There are specific proteins that mites excrete which trigger the allergy when they come in contact with the mucous membranes. They travel through the air by means of dust, which allows them to enter your body through the air you breathe. Usually these substances do not pose a problem in any way, nor do the dust mites themselves: they do not sting, bite or transmit diseases.
But if a dust mite allergy is present, the immune system treats the substance that is actually harmless as if it were dangerous: it puts the body on high alert. In the course of this process, it releases IgE antibodies, which in turn release histamines. These substances trigger inflammatory reactions in the body, leading to a runny nose, coughing or conjunctivitis.
Since the allergic reaction takes place very quickly after contact to the allergen, a dust mite allergy is considered a Type I hypersensitivity, an immediate reaction.