What are dust mites?

Dust mites are tiny bugs that live in your home. They measure about 1/100th of an inch in length, which is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Dust mites feed off of pet and human dander (dead skin cells in the air and on surfaces in our homes), and their waste is a major cause of allergies and asthma. Symptoms of dust mites allergy include sneezing, runny nose, itchy nose and nasal congestion. If you have asthma, dust mites can cause you to wheeze more and need more asthma medicine. You may have more asthma symptoms at night, when you are laying in a bed infested with dust mites. Cutting down the number of dust mites in the home is an important step if you or someone in your family has allergies or asthma.

Dust mites love warm, humid areas filled with dust. Bed pillows, mattresses, carpets and furniture are great places for them to live. Cleaning each one of these places can make a real difference in the number of dust mites in your home.

What do I do first?

Start in the bedroom. Most of the dust mites in your house live in your mattress. Put a tightly woven, dust-proof cover over your mattress. Wash your sheets and blankets in very hot water every week. Wash your pillow every week or put a dust-proof cover on it. (The pillowcase goes over the cover.)

The water used to wash your sheets and blankets should be 130°F to 140°F. This temperature is higher than you may want for your water heater, because water over 120°F can burn children if they turn on the hot water by themselves. If you don’t want to set your water heater at this temperature, you can wash your sheets and blankets at commercial laundries.

Your bedroom should have a hardwood, tile or linoleum floor instead of carpet. Dust mites can grow rapidly in carpet. If you must use carpet, try not to place it on concrete because the warm space between a rug and concrete is a good place for mites to live.

What else can I do?

Vacuuming your carpets and upholstery every week can help. Vacuums with high-efficiency filters pick up more dust mites, but even standard vacuums will help. Plastic or wood furniture that doesn't have much padding can also help keep down the number of dust mites in your home. Because dust mites love warm, humid places, keep the humidity in your home low by using a dehumidifier and running your air conditioner. Special air filters can also help reduce dust mites in the air.

Use a damp cloth or rag weekly to wipe surfaces where dust can collect. This includes countertops, shelves and windowsills. If your children have allergies, make sure to buy them stuffed animals that you can put in the washing machine.

Can allergy medicine help?

Over-the-counter medicines are available to help control your allergy symptoms.

Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (brand name: Benadryl), cetirizine (brand name: Zyrtec) and loratadine (brand name: Claritin) help reduce the sneezing, runny nose and itchiness of allergies. They're more useful if you use them before you're exposed to allergens.

Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness and dry mouth. Others are less likely to cause these side effects, but some of these require a prescription. Ask your doctor which kind is best for you.

Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine (one brand name: Sudafed), help temporarily relieve the stuffy nose of allergies. Decongestants are found in many medicines and come as pills, nose sprays and nose drops. They are best used only for a short time. Nose sprays and drops shouldn't be used for more than 3 days because you can become dependent on them. This causes you to feel even more stopped-up when you try to quit using them.

If you have high blood pressure, be sure to talk to your doctor before taking a decongestant. Decongestants can raise your blood pressure.

Cromolyn sodium is a nasal spray that helps prevent the body's reaction to allergens. Cromolyn sodium is more helpful if you use it before you're exposed to allergens. This medicine may take 2 to 4 weeks to start working.

If you are having a hard time controlling your symptoms, your doctor may talk to you about prescription allergy medicines, such as:

If these treatments don't work, your doctor might talk to you about allergy shots. Allergy shots help your body fight your dust mite allergy.

If dust mites are making your asthma symptoms worse, or if you taking more of your asthma medication than usual, be sure to talk to your doctor. Your doctor may want you to switch to a new medication that can better control your symptoms.