Shake Out the Dog, Vacuum the Cat: It's Time for Spring Cleaning

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Shake out the rugs, chase down the family pet -- it's time for spring cleaning. For allergy-prone families, this rite of spring can go a long way toward getting rid of dust, dust mites, and other airborne irritants. For a little guidance on your home's problem areas, WebMD turned to allergy experts across the country, several of whom presented their studies last year at a meeting of specialists in New Orleans.

Dust mites are a pervasive, year-round problem for nearly everyone, says Ann Rosenwasser, RN, a nurse who regularly staffs the "Lung Line" for the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. "Dust mites are pretty much a reality in most parts of the world except where it's dry or very cold," she tells WebMD. "Because houses are built tighter now, dust mites have become a problem in colder climates, too."

Microscopic dust mites thrive on moisture and live off human skin scales, Rosenwasser says. When we slough off skin scales -- which the human body does constantly -- both the scales and the mites get into any adjoining soft surface that can easily retain them. That includes bedding, pillows, sofas, and carpets. A humid environment makes the mites reproduce rapidly.

If a family member is very sensitive to dust mites, daily and weekly upkeep of the home works best, she says. However, anyone with a dust mite allergy should probably be away from home during spring-cleaning time, since the stirring up of the allergens involved can cause a severe aggravation of their symptoms.

Short of getting someone else to clean your house, here are some room-by-room tips from the experts:

The Family Room

  • Dust mites thrive in upholstered furniture and carpeting, Rosenwasser says. "Not everyone can afford leather furniture, but if dust mites are a huge problem for your family, you may want to consider it," she tells WebMD. "Hardwood floors and low-pile carpets are also best, if you can afford to make the change."
  • Regular vacuuming or steam cleaning of upholstered furniture and carpets can go a long way toward controlling dust mites, she says. Although steam cleaning is a wet-cleaning method, it's effective at exterminating mites and dries quickly. "When you shampoo carpets, moisture stays in longer, attracting more dust mites. Chemical treatments only add more irritants to the indoor environment."
  • In fact, vacuuming daily with HEPA filters -- which pick up microparticles, especially dust mites -- and using an air purifier can significantly decrease the amount of airborne allergens at home, according to a study by Nathan Rabinovitch, MD, also of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center. His eight-week study involved 14 asthmatic children. Half of them were randomly assigned to a group whose homes and classrooms were vacuumed daily using a HEPA filter and airborne allergens controlled by an air purifier. Classroom levels remained unchanged whether or not the more vigorous methods were used, but the greatest difference was at home, where allergen levels were significantly reduced.
  • Draperies and curtains hold dust, which can be an irritant for someone with asthma and allergies. It's best to replace fabric window coverings with mini blinds, Rosenwasser advises. "They're easier to clean more regularly. Drapes definitely hold in the dust."
  • To pick up dust on hardwood floors and furniture, it's best to use damp cloths. They prevent dust from becoming airborne during the cleaning process itself -- a real problem for some people.

The Bedroom

Because people spend one-third to one-half of their time in the bedroom -- more than any other room -- most spring-cleaning efforts should focus there, Rosenwasser says. And for allergy-prone families, more rigorous weekly cleaning efforts may be necessary.

  • Keep box springs, mattresses, and pillows enclosed in zippered allergen-proof casings, which can be purchased at any linen store. Air purifiers with HEPA filters are especially helpful in the bedroom.
  • Think twice before running a humidifier, since the humidity will encourage the reproduction of dust mites, Rosenwasser says. If you must use one, clean it daily to prevent mold growth.
  • Dehumidifiers and air conditioners can help get rid of airborne allergens and the humidity that fosters them. Empty and clean dehumidifiers regularly -- especially during spring cleaning. "People always forget when they've cleaned them last," Rosenwasser says, so write down each cleaning on your calendar. Be sure to use HEPA air filters in your furnace and air conditioning units, and change them regularly, too.
  • Wash sheets and pillowcases in hot water -- at least 130 F -- at spring cleaning and all year-round, Rosenwasser says. Hot temperatures kill dust mites. And use the dryer; while you might prefer a nice breeze drying your linens, that method just brings more allergens inside. Solutions that contain eucalyptus oil have been used to kill dust mites when washing bed linens and clothes.
  • You could consider using a bit of wintergreen plant oil in drawers to control dust mites. Jeffrey D. Miller, MD, a researcher with Allergy and Asthma Associates in Danbury, Conn., tested the mite-killing effects of many pleasant-smelling oils, and found wintergreen to be the most effective. As with moth-preventive cedar chips, the oil's vapors are effective so the oil does not have to be placed on clothing.
  • Children's stuffed toys -- unfortunately -- can harbor dust mites. "Try to make toys from terry cloth [or buy ones that are] so you can wash them more frequently," Rosenwasser says.

The Garage

Take a vacuum to your car. It turns out that dust mites there can easily cling to clothing, bringing more allergens into the home, according to a study by Larry G. Arlian, PhD, a researcher at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Arlian painstakingly evaluated dust mite counts of 144 new homes during the hot, humid summer months -- and in December, which is typically drier -- and found that 77% of those homes that had high dust mite counts also had mites in the owners' automobiles.


Animal dander, fur, saliva, and urine contribute numerous allergens -- including dust mites -- to the home environment.

Short of ousting Fido from the home, however, keeping him out of the bedroom and washing his bedding frequently are your best bets, Rosenwasser says. Closing vents or putting vent filter paper over them cuts down on the amount of fur blowing through the house. "Some people feel washing the dog or cat every week will cut down [on] dander. Just try doing that."