Normally, we don't think about dust all that much, but dust is everywhere -- along the top of the dresser, in dust balls under the sofa, floating in the air visible when the afternoon sun streaks in through the window. It's no wonder we don't give it a second thought; or when we do, we think that dust is made up of bits of fluffy white cotton and feathers.
Household dust is made up of 75% human skin cells and/or pet dander. (We lose about 1 million skin cells from our bodies every day.) The remaining 25% is made up of mold spores, bits of fabric from clothing or furniture, and insect particles. EEEWWWWW!
That's not the gross part.
Meet Grossy Mc Grosserson: the dust mite.
Dust mites are microscopic creatures that are closely related to ticks. They feast on the skin flakes that we shed on a daily basis. Normally, I would applaud such a creature for taking recycling to such a level. Unfortunately, dust mites don't just eat skin flakes to clean up the environment and then leave. They live in dusty environments eating, pooping, and reproducing.
The digestive enzymes in the dust mite's gut persist in their feces, which can trigger allergy symptoms. A female dust mite can live up to 70 days and lay 100 eggs during her life span. It is estimated that for each gram of household dust, there are between 100 and 500 dust mites with the highest concentration in the dustiest areas of the house.
What are the dustiest areas of the house, you ask? Why the dustiest areas are the area with the highest concentration of discarded skin cells, namely pillows, mattresses, bedclothes, sofas, and stuffed animals! If you are the kind of person who leaves your clothes piled up on a chair in your bedroom, you can bet the dust mites are treating it like a condo. Carpeting, drapes, and hard-to-clean spots are other areas that dust can accumulate.
When this skin, dander, mold, fabric, and dust mite (living, dead, and fecal) cocktail is inhaled, it can trigger a histamine reaction that results in red, itchy, watery eyes, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, runny nose, and congestion. People who are highly allergic to dust mites may experience symptoms in even relatively low-dust environments. Conversely, in very dusty environments, even people without allergies may experience symptoms.
Other than sleeping outside (which I actually highly recommend from time to time!), how can you decrease symptoms of household dust allergies? There are actually many simple steps that can greatly decrease symptoms.
Basically, you have to decrease the dust! (duh.)
1) Wash bedclothes once a week in hot water. Washing bedding in water over 130 degrees and drying in a drier will kill dust mites.
2) While you're at it, wash the pillows and stuffed animals, too. Don't be one of those people who keeps your pillow for 15 years proclaiming it "the most comfortable pillow ever." Replace your pillow every few years and wash it periodically during its lifespan. And moms, I know your toddler will have a tantrum if you try to wash his or her stuffed Winnie the Pooh, but wait till nap time and then give that woobie a good scrubbing. At the very least, run it through the fluff cycle in the drier.
3) Use mattress covers and pillow covers. You very well can't run the mattress through the washing machine, but giving it a once over with the vacuum and then putting a mattress cover on it will keep the dust mites out. You may want to do the same to the sofa. I wouldn't recommend the plastic sofa covers that your grandmother has, but a nice fabric slipcover that can be tossed in the washing machine can help reduce allergy symptoms. And increase the grooviness factor of your living room exponentially!
4) Keep carpeting clean. Hardwood or tile floors are better overall for reducing dust mites, but if you have wall to wall carpeting, vacuum once a week. Wash throw rugs and floor mats in hot water regularly.
5) Pay attention to window treatments Just as hardwood floors are superior to carpeting, window shades are superior to drapes for managing dust allergies. If you do have curtains, wash the curtains in hot water each season.
6) Dust regularly. Use a damp cloth to capture the dust particles.
7) Don't over-do it. It's tempting to think: "if a little is good, a lot is better." But vacuuming and dusting too often can actually make allergies worse by kicking particles up into the air, thereby reducing the overall air quality of the house.
Which is a topic for another day.