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Is Your Pillow the Source of Your Allergy Symptoms?

Your pillow, much as you love it, could be harboring dust mites that can cause allergy and asthma. Do you need to replace it?
Is Your Pillow the Source of Your Allergy Symptoms?
Beautiful blonde hugs a pillow in bed with her eyes closed. Woman with a pillow. Pillow for sleeping.

If you have year-round allergy symptoms, as so many people do, you might want to undertake some detective work to see if you can identify the source. That way, you might be able to avoid those things that make you sniffle without relying on daily drug treatment to control red itchy eyes and nasal congestion or sinus headaches. Of course, if the problem is your pet, you won’t want to get rid of him or her, but you might banish him from the bedroom. Be sure to evaluate your pillow as a possible problem. You might be surprised how often it can host troublesome mites.

Is Your Pillow Causing Your Allergy Woes?

Q. I love the pillow I’ve been sleeping on for five years. However, I’m beginning to suspect it might be causing me trouble.

When I go to sleep each night, I can breathe perfectly through my nose. When I wake up in the morning, my mouth is dry and my nose is congested. My eyes are also irritated. Can you recommend an antihistamine or a safe nasal spray I can use before getting into bed?

A. Before you try any medications, you may want to invest in a new pillow. It doesn’t take long for a pillow to become a breeding ground for microscopic organisms including fungi, bacteria and dust mites. The mites produce proteins that trigger allergy symptoms and even asthma in susceptible people.

Controlling Dust Mites With a Dehumidifier:

To control dust mites, first invest in a dehumidifier. These creatures (Dermatophagoides species) prefer humid homes, so keeping the humidity in your home (or even just your bedroom) at 50 percent or lower will discourage them (Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Oct. 2015). Once you have your new pillow, make sure it gets aired out every day, if possible, so moisture from your sleeping body can dissipate.

Cover the Pillow and Wash the Cover:

Using microfine fiber covers for your pillow and mattress can be helpful (Journal of Asthma, Oct. 2016). In addition, laundering pillow covers and pillowcases every week, with a long soak in hot soapy water, helps reduce the numbers of mites (Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, June, 2002). “Hot” water is at least 130 degrees F.

Set Up Your Bedroom to Discourage Dust Mites:

Streamline your cleaning by getting rid of wall-wall carpets, upholstered furniture and drapes on the windows. Window shades that roll down are less likely to harbor dust mites. If at all possible, have someone without dust mite allergies clean the bedroom at least once a week. If that is as impractical as it sounds, wear a filtering mask when you do those chores and allow the dust that gets stirred up during cleaning to settle before bedtime. Unfortunately, while these tactics sound sensible, most have not been thoroughly studied (Clinical and Translational Allergy, Jan. 6, 2020). Nonetheless, we suggest that you trade in your pillow and put an allergen-impermeable cover on the new one to try to reduce your symptoms.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Tsurikisawa N et al, "Effective allergen avoidance for reducing exposure to house dust mite allergens and improving disease management in adult atopic asthmatics." Journal of Asthma, Oct. 2016. DOI: 10.3109/02770903.2016.1155218
  • Vyszenski-Moher DL et al, "Effects of laundry detergents on Dermatophagoides farinae, Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus, and Euroglyphus maynei." Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, June, 2002. DOI: 10.1016/S1081-1206(10)61889-3
  • van Boven FE et al, "A meta-analysis of baseline characteristics in trials on mite allergen avoidance in asthmatics: room for improvement." Clinical and Translational Allergy, Jan. 6, 2020. DOI: 10.1186/s13601-019-0306-3
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