Dust, per se, isn’t generally an allergen, even for sensitive persons. But dust mites have that name because they live on the small particles that are in everyone’s home. They are a common cause of allergic reactions.
As they produce feces and their bodies decay, they introduce proteins into the environment that the immune system may judge to be foreign invaders. That triggers a release of antibodies called IgE (immunoglobulin E). Those stimulate the release of histamine, which creates the common allergy symptoms such as watery, itchy eyes (conjunctivitis), runny nose (allergic rhinitis or hay fever) and others.
When pollen levels are lowest in winter, dust mite populations can be at a peak. This is the period in many climates when humidity is high, owing to frequent rain or melting snow. Dust mites thrive when the air is humid and tend to die off when it falls below 50%.
As with most environmental factors, prevention is the best medicine.
Keep the quantity of dust mites and their products as low as possible by thorough cleaning. Wash bedspreads and sheets weekly in hot water (130-140F/54-60C). If possible, freeze dry bedding overnight in a large freezer. Using hypo-allergenic sheets and bedspreads can help, too. Wool or down make for very comfortable bedding, but they encourage dust mites more than synthetic blends.
Children are the most susceptible, especially those from families with a history of allergies. When selecting stuffed toys, look for those that are washable in hot water. Wash pillowcases frequently in hot water and add a mild bleach.
Special dust rags and mops that actually hold dust rather than fling it into the air are helpful. Vacuum frequently with a vacuum cleaner that sports a good HEPA filter. For the truly sensitive, wear a surgical mask during dusting and vacuuming. Leave the room for half an hour afterward to let the dust settle. Dust mites are heavy and don’t remain airborne for long.
Some may want to consider replacing carpeted areas with wood or synthetic flooring. These materials retain much less dust and are easily mopped. The bedroom is a good place to concentrate on. Fabric curtains can be replaced with wood or plastic shutters. Louvers can be more easily wiped down.
Even the most diligent can still suffer from allergy symptoms. Medication is one good option. Over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or Claritin (loratadine) do offer symptom relief. Prescription strength nasal sprays, such as Nasonex, are a godsend to others. Follow the directions, though, and don’t overdose.
For those that suffer asthma symptoms, such as wheezing or chronic coughing, bronchodilators can be beneficial. These help open up the bronchial tubes. Corticosteroids may be taken alone or in conjunction with them. As with any prescription medicine, a professional diagnosis is a must before starting any such treatment. All drugs have side effects.
In more extreme cases, immunotherapy may be appropriate. These are allergy shots containing extracts from dust mites that attempt to desensitize patients. This is a long-term course of treatment and you should consult your physician.