Dust Mites Elude High-End Vacuums

Researchers Say Even With HEPA Filter, Vacuums Don't Abolish Home Allergens

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 17, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 17, 2006 -- You can't vacuum your allergies away, British researchers find.

Experts currently recommend vacuums equipped with high-efficiency particulate air filters -- HEPA filters -- for families with dust mite or pet allergies.

But Robin Gore, MD, and colleagues at the University of Manchester have been testing brand-new, HEPA-equipped vacuums. They recently showed they actually raise personal exposure to cat dander. Now they find that they stir up dust mites, too.

"Both HEPA and non-HEPA vacuum cleaners can actually increase an individual's exposure to particles containing cat allergens," Gore says, in a news release. "These latest findings further suggest that there is no significant advantage to using a HEPA vacuum cleaner to reduce exposure to airborne particles like dust mites."

The findings appear in the January issue of the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

The Unbeaten Old Vacuum

Gore's team got spanking new vacuum cleaners from Electrolux UK, Hoover UK, Nilfisk, Miele, and Stimvak. They also hauled from its closet a 10-year-old used Electrolux, with its original non-HEPA filter.

In a sealed experimental chamber, the HEPA-equipped vacuums did not leak allergens -- tiny particles of irritating substances. The old vacuum did.

But when researchers tested the vacuums in actual homes, they got different results. Experimenters wore particle-trapping devices in their nostrils. In terms of how much dust mite allergen got into the nose, the new vacuums were no better than the old one.

Gore and colleagues deduce that all the vacuums stirred up dust mite allergens from the carpet. The amount of dust mite particles that got into the vacuumers' noses was small, even when they used the old vacuum. And changing the vacuum cleaner bags -- even on the fancy vacuums -- produced a small cloud of dust.

Gore's team concludes that HEPA-equipped vacuums don't reduce allergen exposure and should not specifically be recommended by allergists.

So is money spent on a HEPA-equipped vacuum really wasted? WebMD asked the nation's impartial experts -- Consumer Reports. Vacuum tester Mark Connelly is CR's director of appliances and home improvement applications.

"If a vacuum has a HEPA filter, but just blows particles to the side and is putting things into someone's nose, that is no help," Connelly tells WebMD. "Whether it is because the vacuum is blowing particles at the carpet level, or leaking from around the HEPA filter, or getting stirred up by the brush, we say, 'Hey! Particles are going up your nose. This is not a good thing."

Keep Vacuuming

No vacuum cleaner in the world is going to cure your family's allergies, says allergist Clifford W. Bassett, MD, of Long Island College Hospital, Brooklyn, N.Y. But since you have to vacuum your carpets anyway, a HEPA-filtered vacuum can be part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce household allergens.

If you or a member of your family suffers allergy or asthma, don't run out and buy a vacuum. Get tested and treated, Bassett advises. The key, he says, is to develop an individualized allergy-reduction program. This may include immunotherapy, what patients often call "allergy shots."

"Treatment with allergy or asthma medications and immunotherapy is very successful for dust mite allergies," Bassett tells WebMD. "Four out of five patients find good success with immunotherapy. This would let you use any vacuum you want."

About 10% of home allergies can be traced to pets. The worst offenders, Bassett says, are cats -- particularly those with dark color and male sex.

If you've got a child with asthma and have a black cat named Dude, it's probably a good idea to find another home for the Dudester. Since people rarely part with their pets, Bassett says, the next best thing is a broad allergen-reduction effort.

"We need to look at a combination of measures, not just the vacuums or HEPA filters," Bassett says. "Just because this study found no benefit, it doesn't mean that as a part of a comprehensive allergy and allergen prevention and treatment program, a HEPA-equipped vacuum would not have some benefit. Because along with this would go other environmental interventions."

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: Gore, R.B. European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, January 2006; vol 61: pp 119-123. "Tips to Remember: Indoor Allergens," American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) web site, downloaded Feb. 16, 2006. Clifford W. Bassett, MD, member, AAAAI public education committee; and Long Island College Hospital, Brooklyn, N.Y. Mark Connelly, director, appliances and home improvement applications, Consumer Reports.

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