At the end of a long day, it’s comforting to know that your trusty bed pillow awaits you—fluffed, squished, folded, and flipped into the perfect place for you to lay your head. But you’re not the only one nestling into those cozy fibers—especially if your pillow is older than a preschooler—because over time, the oil, sweat, and heat from your skin sink into your pillow, making it a fertile breeding ground for dust mites and fungi.
Mighty, Mighty Dust Mites
These tiny members of the spider family (yep, spiders—that should be enough to give you the heebie-jeebies) are throwing a party in your pillow––and inviting all their friends. Mites only live one to three months, but they reproduce quickly; female mites lay roughly 50 eggs in their short lifetime. While they are certainly disgusting, dust mites themselves aren’t the real problem. They don’t bite or spread disease. However, about 20 percent of Americans are allergic to dust mite waste (including body fragments from dead and decaying mites).
A single dust mite produces roughly 20 fecal droppings every day. Multiply that by the thousands of dust mites that could be living in your pillows, and you’ve got a wasteland of potentially hazardous mite feces. Many dust mite allergy symptoms—like sneezing, itchy eyes, and nasal congestion (go here for a full list)—resemble those associated with the common cold. But if you experience these symptoms for longer than a week, you might have an allergy.
The Fungus Among Us
Despite the name, fungal spores are anything but fun. According to researchers in England, the average pillows contains millions of these guys. Following their analysis of ten pillows— both synthetic and feather—scientists concluded that each one carried up to 16 different fungi.
Interestingly, fungi can be a good thing––if you’re healthy. Exposure to fungi can actually boost the immune system. But the fungi in your pillow could exacerbate symptoms of asthma and allergies. Furthermore, they could pose a significant health risk if you have an existing respiratory disease or suffer from immune suppression.
Ways to Reduce Health Risks
Even if you don’t have allergies, you probably still don’t want to share your pillow with mites and fungi, and when it comes to getting rid of them, washing your pillow case just isn’t enough. The following tips can help you prevent them from growing in your pillow:
- Use airtight, allergen-proof pillow protectors.
- Wash pillows regularly (at least once a month) in hot water. If you use protectors, you can reduce pillow washing to twice a year, but you should still wash the protector once a month.
- Freeze your pillows overnight.
- Put your pillows in the dryer once a week.
- Don’t go to bed with wet hair––your pillow will soak up the moisture.
Together, mites and fungi create a creepy mini-ecosystem in your pillow: mites eat the fungi and your dead skin cells, and, in turn, the fungi eat the mite feces—and the whole cycle is fueled by the warm and humid environment your body provides. To make your pillow a less inviting home for these pests, you should protect it from hair and body oils as much as possible as this minimizes moisture and food sources. Keep in mind that protecting and cleaning your pillow will help, but if you have allergies, you should replace it every two years to reduce your health risks.