What is a Dust Mite Allergy?


People who have a dust mite allergy experience common allergy symptoms when around these tiny insects.

What are dust mites? They are microscopic relatives of ticks and spiders. They are invisible to the naked eye — you can fit about 50 on the head of a pin. They live for up to 3 months (females live longer). They live in mattresses, pillows, carpets, upholstered furniture and house dust.

Proteins in dust mite droppings and their dead carcasses can cause an allergic reaction when inhaled. They can irritate airways and eyes on contact. Prolonged exposure to dust mites can cause chronic inflammation, wheezing and difficulty breathing, all associated with asthma.

Dust mites thrive in warm, humid environments. They feed on dead skin cells that humans constantly shed. They do not drink water because they absorb it from their environment. They do not bite and are harmless unless you are allergic to them.

An estimated 20 million Americans live with a dust mite allergy. Every home has them and it takes effort to control them. There are several ways to control them that may improve your allergy symptoms. Medication and other treatments are helpful for symptom management.

Hundreds of microscopic dust mites magnified for photographying

Is a dust allergy the same as a dust mite allergy?

It can be hard to tell whether an allergy is from dust or dust mites. That’s because dust mite allergens are often found in dust.

Dust is made of particles tracked in on shoes, shed from people and pets, and blown in through windows, doors and cracks in your home. It could be dirt, pollen, skin cells, hair, clothing fibers, bacteria and dust mites. Fine particles remain in the air and are breathed in, while heavier particles make up dust we wipe off surfaces.

Dust can also come from manufacturing, yard work and construction. Dust sensitivities happen more to people living in cities. Breathing fine particles in the air will not bother everyone, but those sensitive to allergens and pollution may find symptoms worsening.

Live dust mites need moisture and warmth, so they’re often found living in carpets and bedding. Their feces and body parts are in household dust.

Can dust cause allergies?

Dust is everywhere and can irritate anyone’s airways even if they have no known allergies. If you have bad allergy symptoms and suspect dust is the cause, you may want to look deeper because dust contains many things, including:

  • insect parts from dust mites and cockroaches, as well as their waste
  • mold
  • pollen
  • pet dander from fur or feathers
Medical drawing of obstructed and unobstructed bronchial tubes

What are dust mite allergy symptoms?

Whether you are allergic to dust mites, dust or pet dander, symptoms are similar and range in severity.

Dust mite and dust allergy symptoms are similar to those of a cold. Take note of how long symptoms last. If they continue more than 10 days, it’s likely allergies.

Symptoms may include:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • stuffy nose
  • red, itchy, watery eyes
  • itchiness of the roof of mouth or throat
  • coughing
  • postnasal drip
  • swollen, dark undereye circles
  • pressure or pain in the face (sinus pressure)
  • trouble sleeping

In rare cases, a dust allergy rash may appear, causing redness, itchiness or hives. A dust mite skin allergy can make atopic dermatitis symptoms flare.

Woman feeling sick at home. She's sitting in a comfy arm chair with a box of tissues on her lap

Do you have asthma and a severe dust mite allergy?

If you have asthma and a dust mite allergy, look for:

  • chest pain or a tight feeling in the chest
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • severe asthma attack

Consult with your doctor if you have severe, long-lasting symptoms. Seek emergency care if wheezing, shortness of breath, or trouble breathing worsens or if it happens during sleep.

Is there a dust mite allergy cure?

There is no cure for a dust mite allergy. It’s best to focus on symptom management. Dust mites naturally occur in our homes, and it’s almost impossible to eliminate them. However, you can reduce their numbers in your home and the need for treatment.

For every room in the home, consider these steps to manage dust mite allergens:

  • Use air conditioning or dehumidifiers to reduce the humidity to between 30 and 50 percent. Low humidity inhibits the reproduction and survival of the mites.
  • Use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in your ductwork and a vacuum with a HEPA bag or filter will effectively keep the dust down and trap allergens.
  • Dust with a damp cloth or mop to keep dust down. Less dust flying through the air irritates airways less.
  • Wash curtains in hot water frequently and steam clean upholstery if possible.
  • Minimize dust by replacing carpets with wood, tile, linoleum, or vinyl floors.
  • Reduce clutter – it means fewer places for dust to settle and makes cleaning easier.
  • Wash stuffed toys and dolls in hot water. Keep them out of the bedroom if possible. Dust mites will die in the dryer or freezer, but only a hot wash will remove the particles that inflame airways.
Woman changing hepa filter in her vacuum cleaner.

Dust mite allergy mattress covers

If you are managing a dust mite allergy, your bedroom needs attention. Your bed is a perfect dust mite habitat, providing warmth, humidity and food. Start with these steps:

  • Cover your mattress, box spring, and pillows with zippered dust mite allergy covers. These are tightly woven cloth covers that trap existing mites inside and prevent new ones from getting in. They ensure allergens are not able to enter your airways and are readily available from allergy supply companies.
  • Wash all bed linens, including sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and bed covers, in hot water weekly. Cold washing will not kill dust mites. Dry on high heat or in sunlight in warm weather.
Young handsome man cleaning in the bedroom

Best vacuum for dust mites?

Bagless vacuums are convenient and easy to use, but if you manage allergies, you should pass. They do have filters meant to trap dust and particulate matter, but most people don’t clean them well enough for effectiveness. Those with allergies should always look for a vacuum with proper HEPA filtration, and bagless models that have them are prohibitively expensive.

Bagless vacuums need frequent emptying, often every time you use them. Their dust cups are held over the trash and released with a lever, but releasing clouds of allergens into the air may trigger allergy or asthma symptoms. Bagged vacuums allow you to keep dust and allergens sealed up for disposal, and you can go weeks or months between bag changes.

Young girl helping to clean the house. She's bending down and with a dust rag and cleaning under her bed. She has a smile on her face and is happy to help keep the house free of dust mites.
When shopping for a bagged vacuum, keep these features in mind:

  • Follow all cleaning instructions to ensure the proper removal of allergens. Indicator lights for the bag tell you when to change it.
  • Beltless models with induction motors are best for powerful suction to trap all allergens.
  • Models labeled for pets will include stiff bristles and strong suction for cleaning capability.
  • Cleaning headlights make it easier to find every bit of dirt and dust.
  • For severe allergies, invest in advances like high-frequency vibration, hot air and UV sanitizers. These work to loosen dirt and dust, pull dust mites from hiding, and sanitize.

Is there cross-reactivity between dust mites and shrimp?

Numerous studies have found a relationship between house dust mites and shrimp. The protein tropomyosin is a cross-reacting allergen found in both dust mites and shrimp. (Tropomyosin is a pan-allergen. It is found in other crustaceans such as lobster and crab and in cockroaches.) In recent years, researchers have found other allergenic proteins in both dust mites and shrimp. If you have a dust mite allergy and experience an allergic reaction after eating shrimp, talk with your doctor about testing. Tropomyosin may or may not be the primary trigger.

African american father and daughter spending time together with a dog on a bed.

Dust Mite allergy treatment

If limiting exposure to dust mite allergens does not help symptoms, then your doctor may recommend allergy medications. Many different types of medications are available.

  • Over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants are common treatments for dust mite allergy. These remedies help relieve sneezing, runny nose and itching. They also shrink inflamed tissues to ease breathing.
  • Corticosteroid nasal sprays help relieve congestion in the nose and irritated, watery eyes. They are available over-the-counter and by prescription. They start working quickly, but you may not feel the full effects for several weeks.
  • Cromolyn sodium is a mast cell stabilizer that can help prevent a histamine response to dust mites. It’s available as an over-the-counter nasal spray. Cromolyn sodium is most effective when taken before a reaction begins, so it may be best to begin this medication when you’re not feeling symptoms. Cromolyn sodium needs about a month to reach full effect.

Consult with your doctor to determine the best allergy medicine for your symptoms.

Allergy shots (allergen immunotherapy) for dust mites

Immunotherapy exposes your body to allergens in increasing increments to dull your immune response over time. Allergy shots and allergy tablets are forms of immunotherapy.

When you begin allergen immunotherapy, your allergist will give weekly injections for 6-12 months. Each shot contains increased doses of dust mite allergen, encouraging your immune system to become more tolerant and exhibit a milder response.

Eventually, your allergic reaction will decrease or stop altogether. When this happens, you have reached the maintenance level of immunotherapy and can scale back to monthly injections for 2-3 years to maintain your immunity. 

Long-term results of immunotherapy vary from person to person. It may keep allergies from worsening and prevent your body from forming new ones. Sometimes reactions may resume if you stop taking shots.

Fear of injections and constant visits to the allergist are drawbacks to allergy shots and lead some to try allergy tablets.

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Allergy tablets (oral allergen immunotherapy)

Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) tablets eliminate the need for shots and appointments at the allergist. They work like allergy shots in that they use increasing increments of allergens to boost your immune system’s tolerance and limit flare-ups. However, allergy tablets treat a single allergy, whereas allergy injections can treat multiple allergies.

You may take allergy tablets for a dust mite allergy, but if you are also allergic to pollen and ragweed, you will need injections. Also, those with severe or uncontrolled asthma cannot take allergy tablets.

Your allergist will monitor your first dose of allergy tablets for any adverse reaction to the pills. If all goes as expected, you will then take your tablets on your own. You will need epinephrine auto-injectors at home, as reactions could develop later.

SLIT tablets for dust mite allergy are not seasonal. They are taken year-round. Adolescents ages 12-17 and adults ages 18-65 may take these for dust mite allergies. Note that it may take 8-14 weeks to see a reduction in symptoms.

SLIT tablets are held under the tongue until they dissolve. This takes approximately one minute. Users should avoid food and drinks for at least five minutes after the dose and should immediately wash their hands. Allergens in the tablet may be transferred into the eyes or onto the skin, causing a reaction.

Allergy tablets require consistency and following directions precisely. If you miss doses, it isn’t safe to resume them without consulting with your doctor.

Are there other conditions that can look like or complicate allergies

There are other types of conditions that can mimic allergies, but are different than an IgE-mediated allergy. The symptoms, diagnosis and treatment can vary depending upon the condition. Here are some of them.

Food-related conditions that can have symptoms similar to food allergies include:

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