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The sneaky asthma trigger hiding in your home

3 minute read
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They’re so small you can’t even see them. But dust mites can cause big problems for people with asthma.

Jessica Sebor

By Jessica Sebor

If you have asthma, one of the biggest triggers may be living right inside your home: dust mites. They are tiny creatures you can’t see with the naked eye. Often, dust mites are relatively harmless. They don’t bite or sting.

But if you live with asthma, they can cause problems that make your symptoms worse. The good news is that there are ways to control them.

Here’s what you need to know to breathe easier at home.

Dust mite basics

Studies show that about 40% to 85% of people living with asthma are also allergic to dust mites. The bugs can cause allergy symptoms such as sneezing and a runny nose.

For those with both asthma and a dust mite allergy, the mites may also lead to breathing issues, wheezing and chest pain.

“Dust mite allergen is the No. 1 cause of year-round and indoor allergies,” says Clifford W. Bassett, MD. He’s the founder and medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York.

Dust mites are related to ticks and spiders. They live on dead skin and dander that’s shed by people and their pets. Dust mites like to hide in cloth surfaces. They are commonly found in:

  • Bedding (pillows, mattresses, blankets)
  • Upholstered furniture
  • Rugs and carpets
  • Curtains

And just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. About 80% of households in the United States have dust mites in at least 1 bed, according to the American Lung Association.

How dust mites cause asthma attacks

People who are allergic to dust mites aren’t triggered by the bugs themselves. It’s the droppings, urine or dead mite bodies that cause problems.

Inhaling dust mite allergens can cause lung inflammation in some people with asthma, says John M. James, MD. He’s a spokesperson for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

That can make it tougher to manage asthma symptoms. And it may increase the risk of asthma attacks that require emergency medical help.

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How to know if you have a dust mite allergy

If you think you have a dust mite allergy, it’s best to see a doctor. “Your medical history can help identify allergic asthma symptoms,” says Dr. James.

Your doctor may recommend these tests:

Allergy skin test: Sometimes called a prick test, this checks to see how your body reacts to dust mite allergens. Your doctor will gently scratch or prick the skin and put a drop of allergen on it. A red bump reaction means you’re allergic.

Allergy blood test: A small amount of blood is drawn and tested for allergy-causing antibodies specific to dust mites.

Lung function tests: These tests measure how well your lungs work, including testing to see how much air your lungs can hold and expel.

Keeping dust mites at bay

Dust mites need to live in specific environments. And there are ways you can keep them from thriving in your home. Try these tips:

  • Buy zippered covers for your pillows and mattress.
  • Wash your sheets in hot water. Dr. James recommends a weekly wash in 130-degree-plus water.
  • Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner. Dust mites like warm, humid environments. Try keeping your home below 50% humidity.
  • Remove carpets, curtains, drapes, upholstered furniture, clutter and soft toys from the bedroom.
  • Vacuum and dust regularly to reduce allergens.
  • Spray with acaricides. These are pesticides that kill the mites.

Symptom relief

You can buy medication and treatments over the counter or with a doctor’s prescription. Dr. James recommends:

Immunotherapy is another option, which is given as either a shot or pill. It works by exposing you to dust mite allergens in larger and larger amounts. That helps you tolerate dust mites better.

There are also many treatments for allergic asthma, including:

  • Short-acting bronchodilators
  • Long-term asthma controller medications, such as inhaled steroids
  • Leukotriene modifiers

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Additional sources
Statistic: StatPearls/National Library of Medicine (2022). “Dust mite allergy”
U.S. households: American Lung Association (2022). “Dust mites”
Indoor air: American Lung Association (n.d.) “Dust and Indoor Air Quality Briefing”