A Cringeworthy Look at Dust Mites (And How to Fight Them Naturally)

©. KQED Science

Like it or not, you're house is crawling with tiny bugs that feed on your skin. Ugh.

While they sound innocuous enough to some, dust mites may be cause for squirming in the squeamish ... especially since they are all over most people's homes. These microscopic cousins of spiders feed on the bitty flakes of skin that are shed by people and pets. Likely, your mattresses, bedding, upholstered furniture, carpets and curtains are teeming with them.

No matter how clean you keep your home, these little guys cannot be entirely wiped out, and they’re not the only ones at the party. Researchers who took an accounting of the wee animals that we share our homes with came up with a surprising who’s-who of tiny bugs. In fact, they found around 100 different species of arthropods – some we know like flies, spiders and ants, but also a number of curious critters like gall wasps and book lice. Book lice, is nothing sacred?

“Even as entomologists we were really surprised. We live in our houses all the time, so we thought we’d be more familiar with the kind of things we’d come across. There was a surprising level of biodiversity,” says one of the researchers, Michelle Trautwein, assistant curator of entomology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

I suppose it's actually kind of lovely in a way, we share the globe with millions of different species, why would our homes be immune? We're all part of this planet. It's just that the problem with dust mites – once you get over the "ew" factor – is that their droppings can cause allergic reactions in some people and may exacerbate asthma, especially in children.

In a new video from DEEP LOOK, the series by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios, the team drills way down into the world of the ever-disturbing dust mite. See more about your tiny inadvertent pets:

And if you're feeling itchy now, here are suggestions from the National Institutes of Health for diminishing their presence:

  • Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner to maintain relative humidity at about 50 percent or below – they thrive in humidity.
  • Encase your mattress and pillows in dust-proof or allergen impermeable covers (available from specialty supply mail order companies, bedding and some department stores).
  • Wash all bedding and blankets once a week in hot water (at least 130 - 140°F) to kill dust mites. Non-washable bedding can be frozen overnight to kill dust mites.
  • Replace wool or feathered bedding with synthetic materials and traditional stuffed animals with washable ones.
  • If possible, replace wall-to-wall carpets in bedrooms with bare floors (linoleum, tile or wood) and remove fabric curtains and upholstered furniture.
  • Use a damp mop or rag to remove dust. Never use a dry cloth since this just stirs up mite allergens.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with either a double-layered microfilter bag or a HEPA filter to trap allergens that pass through a vacuum's exhaust.
  • Wear a mask while vacuuming to avoid inhaling allergens, and stay out of the vacuumed area for 20 minutes to allow any dust and allergens to settle after vacuuming.