The weather’s getting warmer, flowers are in bloom, and pollen is in the air. You’ve got the classic symptoms of seasonal allergies like watery eyes, a runny nose, itchy skin, and a cough. It must be the changing of the seasons that’s making you feel sick, right? Not necessarily—especially if your symptoms occur after a night of sleep, or when you make your bed. Read on to find out what could really be causing your springtime sickness, and how to stop sniffling and sneezing so you can enjoy the season.
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Bedding, as well as other household items like rugs and curtains, are frequently home to microscopic pests called dust mites. If you’re living with these eight-legged creatures, you’re not alone. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), four out of five homes in the U.S. have dust mites.
Dust mites feed on the flakes of skin that are shed by humans (up to 1.5 grams per day!). These flakes settle into the areas where dust mites live, such as couches, carpets—and especially your bed. The warmth of a mattress (mites thrive in humidity), coupled with the huge amount of dead skin cells that collect there, creates a perfect environment for these arthropods to congregate.
It doesn’t matter how clean and tidy your home is; merely cleaning and changing sheets and pillowcases can’t get rid of dust mites. And regular cleaning devices like vacuums are not effective at removing mites (which are able to cling tightly to surfaces as well as burrow deep beneath them) or preventing human skin cells from collecting (and thus sustaining mites).
As the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America notes, there are at least 13 different species of mites, and while they tend to survive in humid conditions, they can live all year round. However, it’s not just live mites that cause allergies. Their dead body parts and waste are also allergens and can cause typical reactions such as sneezing, coughing, and an itchy throat—as well as more serious issues, like wheezing and shortness of breath, for people with asthma. Since these are also symptoms of a typical seasonal allergy, whether it’s caused by pollen, mold, or other allergens, it can be difficult to figure out what’s causing your discomfort.
So how do you determine if you cohabit with dust mites? The first thing to do is rule out the possibility that you’re ill with a cold or other type of virus. The symptoms can be similar to allergies, but colds typically run their course after about five to seven days, according to the Mayo Clinic. Seasonal allergies also tend to occur at the same time every year during a specific period.
Once you’ve determined that a virus isn’t the reason you’re constantly blowing your nose, you’ll need to figure out if your allergy is caused by dust mites. A key difference between a seasonal allergy and dust mite allergy is when the symptoms occur.
Seasonal allergies are caused by the release of pollen, which lead to seasonal allergic rhinitis—also known as “hay fever.” According to the AAFA, the three main types of pollen that lead to allergies are tree pollen, grass pollen, and weed pollen, which may be produced at different times of the year depending on location. For example, grass pollen can cause allergies during the warmer months in the Northern U.S., while it may be prevalent in the South all year.
It’s possible to have a reaction to pollen that is present throughout the year (or to respond to each of the different pollens that are released during fall, spring, summer, and even winter), but having allergy symptoms consistently despite changes in the weather can indicate a dust mite allergy, especially if it feels at its most severe in the mornings.
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Talking to your doctor and explaining when your symptoms occur—both during the year and within a 24-hour period—can help you figure out whether your allergy is caused by dust mites. In addition, you may receive a skin prick test (SPT) during which allergens are applied to the skin, Healthline explains. The area is then pricked with a needle and monitored by your provider to see if there is an allergic reaction.
If dust mites are making you sick, your doctor can advise you about medication to treat the symptoms, but more importantly, there are precautions you can take to limit your exposure at home.
Start with your bedroom, as dust mites tend to live there more than anywhere else in your living space. The AAFA recommends preventative measures including covering mattresses and pillows with zippered covers, washing bedding in hot water on a weekly basis, limiting textiles in your home like carpets and curtains, and using special certified filter vacuum cleaners that can reduce the amount of dust mites (and their waste).
You can’t completely get rid of dust mites, given their constant access to food and their ability to live deep within furniture like your mattress. But you can limit your exposure, which will go a long way towards relief.
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