You can’t see them. You can’t feel them, but they are in your home and in your bed, possibly by the millions.
Anyone who sleeps on a mattress with pillows is likely sharing their bed with massive colonies of microscopic dust mites (scientific name Dermatophagoides farinae) which feed primarily on dead human skin cells and depositing their waste that can not only build up, but trigger human allergies.
If this doesn’t interrupt a good night’s sleep, nothing else will.
“Virtually every house has dust mites [and] you may not know you have them as ‘roommates’ unless you have an allergic reaction,” according to Dr. Elias Akl, allergist and immunology specialist with Eastern Maine Medical Center. “The dust mites are not the issue, the issue is a little gross — its their feces that contain bacteria, enzymes and proteins that cause allergic reactions.”
Too small to be visible to the naked human eye — you’d need a 10X microscope to see them — dust mites like to hang out in areas that are warm and humid. Like in the bedding and mattresses under sleeping human bodies or in cozy, overstuffed chairs and sofas, according to Clay Kirby, insect diagnostician with University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“Anyplace like that you — or your pets — spend any amount of time is where they are going to be,” Kirby said. “Your — or your pet’s — transpiration is going to provide the proper temperatures and humidity for dust mites to survive.”
The average human spends a third of his or her life in bed with, it turns out, anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million dust mites, according to Environment, Health & Safety Online. Nearly 100,000 dust mites can live in one-square-yard of carpet and up to 10 percent of the weight of a 2-year-old pillow can be composed of dead mites and their droppings.
The good news? Even though they are of the subclass Acari along with ticks, they are not parasitic to humans since they only eat dead tissue.
However, their waste can be harmful to those allergic to it.
“If someone has continuous issues of congestion, sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes, especially when they wake up, they could be having an allergic reaction to the dust mite feces,” Akl said. “These reactions can be annoying to severe, especially if the person has trouble breathing or it triggers allergic asthma.”
Testing for the allergy is quite simple, Akl said, and involves a 15-minute “scratch test” on the arm or back.
Kirby and Akl agree it is next to impossible to completely eradicate dust mites from the home, but there are steps that can help reduce their populations.
“Dust mites seem to be fairly common in homes where humidity is around 60 percent or greater,” Kirby said. “Since they don’t seem to thrive below 60 percent humidity, reducing [the humidity] is one approach [and] if you heat with wood in Maine, that really decreases humidity in your house.”
Dust mites seem happiest and most prolific in conditions around 70 to 80 percent humidity and between 75 and 80 degrees, he said.
As long as a person can live and sleep allergy-free with the knowledge they are in constant company of millions of microscopic mites feasting on their dead flesh, Akl said there is really no need to take defensive action.
But, if there is an issue of allergies there are steps that can help.
Akl recommends washing bed sheets once a week in warm water, do not allow children with allergies to “hug” stuffed animals all night, if possible remove carpeting from the home or at least vacuum once a week, try to limit the use of ceiling fans or unfiltered air conditioners that can stir up the dust mite feces and take measures to reduce the relative humidity in the home.
There are also products on the market that can act as a physical barrier between the mattress or pillows and humans.
“All these things are helpful,” Akl said. “But even if you are able to totally eradicate them, the mites will come back in a few months [because] they are just part of our environment.”
As far as Kirby sees it, with dust mites it often comes down to a live and let live strategy.
“Every once and awhile people see these shows on television that creeps them out about how much microscopic fauna lives on their bodies or personal clothing and bedding,” he said. “Even if you are an individual with super sensitive skin that feels every sensation, you are not going to feel dust mites.”
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