You thought you'd escaped it all now that it's winter.
But you're still sneezing and coughing... Your nose is running... And your eyes might even be itchy as you read this.
It's not a cold. But it sure feels like your allergies are flaring up again... even though the trees are bare, and snow is blanketing the ground.
So, what gives?
You can blame the horde of blind, spiderlike bugs called dust mites everywhere in your house. They're so small that you could find nearly 20,000 of them in just a single gram of dust.
And each of these creatures leaves behind three to five little balls of droppings stuck together – 20 times a day – that we breathe in. These droppings are small enough to get into your windpipe and trigger your immune system causing inflammation.
In recent years, scientists have figured out that a protein from a dust mite's gut – called Der p 23 – is a major allergen. Symptoms of this allergy include itchy eyes, a runny nose, and sneezing from irritated eyes and airways. More serious, dust mites can trigger asthma attacks for symptoms like pain and tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing fits, and wheezing.
It doesn't end there... You can also be allergic to proteins in dust-mite urine and from their dead bodies. So the culprits behind dust-mite allergies in roughly 20 million Americans are technically particles of poop, pee, and carrion.
We're also their main food source... These critters love munching on the tiny bits of skin that flake off of us (or off of Fido, for that matter).
A 2009 study found that about half of the bacteria in the dust found on the floor – and up to nearly 90% of the bacteria in the dust from your bed – comes from none other than yourself. And speaking of your bed, it's estimated that roughly 80% of U.S. homes have at least one mattress loaded with dust-mite allergens. A used mattress is teeming with as many as 10 million mites.
Other than the bedroom, you can find dust mites anywhere else you shed skin... like in carpets, clothes, and stuffed toys, for example. But your bed is their favorite hangout spot. After all, we park our bodies there for hours every night. And dust mites love warm, humid, and dark places.
And with the cold weather keeping most of us hunkered down indoors, we're around dust mites more often. That's why folks with asthma and those sensitive to the allergens from these mites can often see their symptoms getting worse in the winter.
Having trouble figuring out whether it's a cold or a wintertime allergy? Colds include fever, headache, and fatigue. These symptoms tend to gradually worsen before getting better, while allergy symptoms don't peak in severity. Also, colds can last up to a week and become contagious, while allergies can last longer... that is, if you don't roll up your sleeves to do a bit of cleaning.
Regular vacuuming is a must – preferably using a vacuum with a HEPA filter. How often you do it, though, depends on the kind of floor you have...
Rugs and carpeted floors: twice a week, paying attention to zones with high foot traffic.
Non-carpeted floors: once a week, paying special attention to the corners where dust bunnies tend to gather.
Got some furry friends? You'll want to aim for near-daily vacuuming of rugs and carpeted rooms and hallways they tend to frequent.
Aside from making it easier to breathe, doing the vacuuming yourself (rather than a robot) gets you off the couch, instantly lowering your risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease. (After all, research has shown that risk spikes with more than 10 hours of sitting.)
I get an extra energy boost from vacuuming... I also like to add some wearable wrist and ankle weights to build muscle. (Check with your doctor first if you have problems with your back, joints, or balance, though.)
Along with vacuuming, consider investing in an air purifier with a HEPA filter if your allergies or asthma tend to be severe. And if you've got a dehumidifier, great... Dust mites drink water by absorbing moisture from the air. So keeping the humidity below a level of 50% will help kill dust mites and keep them from multiplying.
Finally, don't forget to tackle these mites' favorite spot – one that most folks tend to neglect...
According to a survey of more than 1,000 Americans by Mattress Advisor, the average person swaps out their sheets every 24 days. If you want to avoid dust-mite allergies, your best bet is to make sure changing the bedding becomes a weekly ritual, not a monthly one. Make sure you use the hot-water cycle and get at least 15 minutes of dryer time on high heat. Also, investing in some allergen-proof pillowcases and a mattress cover will help keep those mites out, too.
What We're Reading...
- Something different: It's OK – or even better – to not make the bed.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
January 25, 2024