Little insect causes big problems

Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 2:17 p.m.
On two different television shows last week, the topic of harmful bacteria and other small insects was discussed.
Oprah ran a special on this topic that included the germs that lurk in the kitchen sink, bathroom, bedding, sponges, dish towels, garbage disposals, drapes, rugs and vacuum cleaner bags.
Less than an hour later on the 6 p.m. news, there was another commentator giving information on the bacteria that can be spread from pets.
While listening to both of these very informative presentations, I became painfully aware of some things that I can do differently. I bet you can find a few things to change as well.
Perhaps the one insect that made me consider this as a topic for this week's column was the one known as dust mites, which also are called the bed mite. These are tiny insects of the Arachnida class (along with spiders, scorpions and ticks). They are very small, eight-legged creatures that measure about 0.3 millimeters long.
You probably won't see any dust mites with your naked eye, but I assure you, there are plenty of them keeping you company. How do you know there are dust mites living around you? You might experience itchy eyes, a runny nose, allergic rhinitis, and other symptoms that seem to get worse during the night while you are in bed.
Dust mites cause considerable health problems that usually present themselves in the form of allergies and asthma. Ironically, it is not the dust mites that most people are allergic to, it is their fecal pellet, also called the frass. The pellet is a tiny, round object that contains proteins that many people are sensitive to, and each mite produces about 20 pellets per day.
Once described in the literature as ''glassy,'' ''translucent'' and ''lovely,'' unfortunately the effect on us is quite the opposite. The bed mites pellet has been responsible for extensive allergy suffering and numerous asthma-related deaths. Below, we will talk about the variety of allergy symptoms that the frass can cause.
From the Web site, I learned some important information I think will change your way of cleaning, starting with the fact that we all shed about an ounce of skin scales every month, and dust mites love us for it.
By supplying excellent sustenance for the mites (the cells or body sheds), you can find them in places where we spend a lot of time, like, our favorite upholstered furniture, in carpeting, inside mattresses, in bed sheets and blankets, on pillows, and on soft toys.
These little mites love temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the precise range of temperature in our homes. Also, they love high humidity, since these temperatures favor the mold that breaks down the dust mite's food (human skin). If your home is humid, this is ''icing on the cake'' for bed mites.
So why do we call them bed mites? Because the allergen of dust mites tends to settle into your furniture, fabrics, sheets, pillows and mattress. Where and when are you most vulnerable to the allergen? At night, while in bed. When we sleep, we have our faces resting on a pillow, our bodies on a mattress, and we are ''immersed'' in bed mite territory. We are taking in dust mites allergen with every breath.
A typical double bed can contain more than 2 million dust mites. This can actually double the weight of the mattress in 10 years. What a gross thought. It might be time for those old mattresses to go.
About 10 percent of the population is allergic to dust mites, but it can be as high as 25 percent in humid areas. In fact, this allergy is the primary cause of year-round allergic rhinitis. Some of the symptoms are as follows:
  • Asthma.
  • Itchy, watery eyes.
  • Hay fever.
  • Stuffy nose or ears.
  • Sneezing and coughing upon awakening.
  • Eczema.
  • Improvement of symptoms when outside.
  • Runny nose.
    So, what can we do about this mighty offender? We have to start with the areas that are the collectors of the skin we shed. The carpet should be removed from your bedroom.
    A hard surface such as hard-wood flooring is a better choice, because it can be cleaned with a damp cloth. If carpets cannot be removed, special carpet treatments should be used to inactivate the allergen accumulated in the carpet and to reduce the population of dust mites.
    Vacuuming on a regular basis helps, but make sure your vacuum cleaner does not have a leak. When this occurs, the offending dust is just blown back into the air.
    Replace your standard vacuum bag with a high filtration multi-layer bag and add a vacuum exhaust filter. I'm not a vacuum cleaner salesman, but if you are ready to buy a new vacuum cleaner, try getting one that is classified as a hypo-allergenic vacuum that will fully contain allergens you collect, retaining particles at 99.97 percent efficiency down to 0.3 microns.
    Below are other actions you can take to rid your bedroom of this offender:
  • Encase pillows in zippered allergen-impermeable covers or wash them every two weeks in hot water. (At least 130 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Encase the mattress and box spring in zippered allergen-impermeable covers.
  • Wash all blankets, sheets, pillowcases and mattress pads in hot water (about 130 degrees Fahrenheit) every two weeks.
  • Wash comforters every two weeks and encase them in allergen-impermeable interliners.
    To treat your house for dust mites consider using arachacides, which are chemicals that kill dust mites. Benzyl benzoate is considered safe by the FDA. It is a powder that is applied to carpeting, then vacuumed.
    An example of this product is X-Mite, a powder that deactivates household allergens such as dust mites, mold, pet dander and mildew. This powder would need to be applied 4 to 6 times a year.
    If you think you are suffering because of this small insect and you have not seen your doctor, it is time for the two of you to have a talk. The doctor will be able to decide whether bed mites is the offender or if there is another cause for your discomfort.
    If no symptoms are present, please do what you can to get rid of the critters.
    Vivian Filer is a retired professor of nursing, Santa Fe Community College. Write to her in care of the Gainesville Guardian, "Health Files," 2700 SW 13th St., Gainesville, Fla. 32608. You can also e-mail your questions, with "Health Files" in the subject line, to
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