By Kim O’Hare
As the all too short winter “cool” season gives way to the scorching heat of spring and summer in the Emirates, it’s a good time of year consider having your AC ducts cleaned by a professional. A growing number of people suffer from dust allergies which cause sneezing, itchy eyes and cold-like symptoms that can make life miserable. So what exactly is a dust allergy?
House dust is a mixture of many substances, and can vary from home to home. Depending on building materials, type of furniture and floor coverings and the presence of pets, each home will have a unique dust profile but for the allergy sufferer the effect is the same: several months of itchy watery eyes, sneezing, wheezing and a range of other respiratory issues.
A spec of dust may contain fabric fibres, human skin particles, animal dander, microscopic creatures called mites, bacteria, parts of cockroaches, mold spores, food particles and other debris. Of these, animal dander, house dust mites and cockroaches are the most common culprits. A person may be allergic to one or more of these substances, and, if exposed to the dust, will have an allergic reaction.
Tiny microscopic creatures called dust mites are the major cause of allergic reactions to house dust. Dust mites are hardy creatures that live well and multiply easily in warm, humid places. They prefer warm temperatures (above 70 degrees F) and high humidity (+ 75 percent) As many as 10 percent of the general population and 90 percent of people with allergic asthma are sensitive to dust mites.
People who are allergic to dust mites react to proteins in the bodies and feces of the mites. These fecal particles are found in the highest concentrations in pillows, mattresses, carpeting and upholstered furniture. They float into the air when anyone vacuums, walks on a carpet or disturbs bedding, but settle out of the air once the disturbance is over. Dust mite-allergic people who inhale these particles frequently experience allergy symptoms.
In fact, a dust mite allergic patient who sleeps for eight hours every night spends one third of his life with his nose in direct contact with a pillow loaded with dust mite particles!
There may be many as 19,000 dust mites in one gram of dust, but usually between 100 to 500 mites live in each gram. (a gram is about the weight of a paper clip). Each mite produces about 10 to 20 waste particles per day and lives for 30 days. Egg-laying females can add 25 to 30 new mites to the population during their lifetime.
Mites eat particles of skin and dander, so they thrive in places where there are people. Dust mites don’t bite, cannot spread diseases and usually do not live on people. They are harmful only to people who become allergic to them. While usual household insecticides have no effect on dust mites, there are ways to reduce exposure to dust mites in the home.
Molds are commonly found in outdoor air. However, any house can develop a mold problem given the right conditions. You might not see it growing on the walls, but it may still be present in your home. Molds thrive in a humid environment and like to grow on wallboard, wood or fabrics, but will grow virtually any place if they are given a chance. Molds spread by producing spores that can become airborne, ending up in house dust where they grow. Dust from mold-contaminated houses can cause allergy symptoms in the mold-sensitive person.
A dust allergy is not necessarily the sign of a dirty home however; normal housekeeping may not be enough to get rid of house dust allergy symptoms, particularly in older villas where AC ducts have never been cleaned. Many of the particles in dust cannot be removed by normal cleaning procedures. No matter how vigorously you dust or vacuum, you won’t reduce the number of dust mites present deep within carpeting, pillows and mattresses. Vigorous cleaning methods can actually put more dust into the air making symptoms worse.
Forced-air cooling systems tend to blow dust particles into the air. In a climate such as that in the UAE people may have fewer symptoms from house-dust exposure during the winter months because they spend more time outdoors, and they tend to use their air conditioning less.
The three basic treatments for dust mite allergy are:
* Dust mite avoidance
* Prescription medications
* Allergy shots (immunotherapy)
House dust avoidance works best to relieve symptoms. But how do you avoid house dust? Dust mites can be difficult to remove completely from your home. However, you can follow certain anti-mite procedures that will reduce mite populations and your exposure to them, thereby reducing your symptoms. Some of these procedures are difficult and you may not need to do them all.
Pay special attention to bedrooms. On average, people spend one-third of their lives in the bedroom. Studies have shown that, of all the rooms in the home, the bedroom often contains the most dust mites. Concentrate efforts in the bedroom of the dust-sensitive person. Select non-allergic, washable bedding materials. Rather than pillows stuffed with feathers, use pillows stuffed with synthetic materials.
Get special casings (plastic or rubberized fabric) that zip around mattresses, box springs and pillows. These limit your exposure to dust mite particles. Avoid bulky comforters and chenille bedspreads. Use washable blankets and spreads, and wash all bedding (including pillows without cases) every week to 10 days, using hot water. Lowering humidity reduces the number of mites, molds and cockroaches.
If you want to check how much dust and debris is being circulated in your flat or villa, place a filter made of cheesecloth over the AC vent for a few days and see how much dust it picks up.
Clean your home thoroughly on a regular basis (particularly the bedrooms). Vacuum frequently and dust with a damp or oiled cloth. Vacuuming can raise a cloud of dust. Special vacuum cleaner bags for trapping dust are available. Consider a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) air filtered vacuum. These expensive units are not necessary for all patients.
You may need to remove carpeting, especially in the bedroom. Carpeting is a breeding ground for dust mites. If you must have carpeting, select a type with low pile. Scatter rugs that can be washed each week are a better alternative. If possible, you might be better off to avoid carpets altogether, as mites don’t like to live on uncarpeted floors.
Remove any items that tend to collect or hold dust and replace them with easy-to-clean items. Use wooden, leather or vinyl covered sofas and chairs instead of upholstered furniture. Select closed bookcases and curio cabinets instead of open shelves. Books and knick-knacks are dust collectors. Use washable curtains or window shades. Choose furniture with simple, clean designs instead of ornately carved pieces. Select easily cleaned decorations instead of dried-flower arrangements, wall hangings and straw baskets.
Use air-conditioning to keep inside humidity at 50 per cent or lower to slow the growth of dust mites and molds during warm weather months. An inexpensive hygrometer will help you monitor humidity. Change or clean air-conditioner filters often. In some cases, your physician may recommend using a HEPA cleaner on your heating system or a portable HEPA filter unit in your bedroom. The portable units are efficient at cleaning air in their immediate vicinity but are of limited use in large rooms. They have not been shown to be useful for patients with dust mite allergy, since the dust mite particles are not airborne.
If you follow these procedures to reduce your exposure to house dust but allergy symptoms persist, your doctor may recommend other treatment methods such as medications or allergy shots. Consult an allergist to determine the most effective treatment method for you. You can gain control of your dust mite allergy and achieve relief from allergy symptoms.
Antihistamines contain drugs that neutralize the histamines produced when allergens irritate your immune system. Newer allergy medications are less likely to make people drowsy. Most allergy pills are available over the counter—you don’t need a prescription. If your symptoms are more severe, there are nasal sprays and eye drops you can also take. Several require a prescription.