We spend a third of our lives with our heads on our pillows so perhaps we should be more careful about how we choose our pillows in the first place, how we maintain them and how often we replace them.
Those pillows on our beds, if left virtually undisturbed, are said to resemble a complete micro ecosystem made up of house dust mites, fungal spores and human sweat and other moisture.
Both synthetic and down pillows are full of dust mites and millions of fungal spores
It is thought that the house dust mites eat the fungi while the fungi uses the house dust mites feces as a major source of nutrition along with human skin scales.
The most common fungus found (especially in synthetic pillows) is Aspergillus
, causing a big problem for adults and kids with mold allergies, asthma, sinus problems or compromised immune systems.
Some more of those health hazards in our pillows
Feather or down pillows are no safer and for many with allergies and/or asthma, they can be a serious health risk. The exposure to some can be compared to having a live bird in the bedroom. Some feather or down pillows (and other bedding) are filled with bacteria-like organisms that could have originally grown in the feathers of live birds while other feather items can emit feather fragments that can cause respiratory problems.
Your pillow could even be toxic because of the possibility of fire retardant chemicals having been added. When replacing your pillows, look for a natural latex, bamboo or organic cotton or wool filled pillows as these should be naturally fire retardant.
Have you been hospitalized lately?
When it comes to pillows in hospitals, there is a whole new list of concerns to be worried about. According to a study by the Barts and the London NHS Trust in the UK, the condition of pillows in hospitals provides the ideal breeding grounds for undesirables ranging from the superbugs - MRSA and C.difficile - to seasonal flu, chickenpox, hepatitis and more.
Nurses are required to regularly wash their hands and ensure the disinfecting of bed frames and mattresses, but underestimate the risk of infection from dirty pillows with their build up of dead skin, dandruff, contaminated fluids and more. Researchers studied the “health” of hundreds of pillows used by patients in hospitals run by this Trust where they found high levels of "living" contamination on the outside of the pillows. In some cases, rips and tears meant that the germs had found their way into the filling.
It is not only what is living in and on your pillow that can be a problem
The shape of the pillow can be important too.
- For example if you always wake up with a stiff neck or neck pain, it could mean your pillow is not doing a good job of supporting your neck. A foam contour pillow could help -particularly one made from memory foam – supporting your neck as well as your head whether you sleep on your back, side or stomach.
- Shoulder and back pain could mean your spine isn't aligned naturally during sleep. To prevent this you need to rest in a position that is natural to the alignment of your spine which will not be possible if your pillow is too high or too low. Choose a pillow that keeps your head in alignment with your spine. If you sleep on a very thick mattress, you will reap the best results by sleeping on a thick pillow while if your mattress is thin, then a thin pillow will help you to stay free of pain.
How to keep your pillows clean, fresh and safe
- Make a habit of washing them at least 3 times a year and replacing them with new ones every second year because in time, pillows double in weight as they absorb dust, mold, dead skin, dust mite feces and much more as we sleep.
- If you have expensive memory foam or silk pillows, these should be dry cleaned but normal pillows can be put in the washing machine with a natural detergent and dried with a heat source.
- In between and as often as possible – such as every two weeks – put pillows out in the hot sun to air and kill off dust mites or in cold wet weather, put them in a hot dryer for a few minutes.
- Many adults and children are allergic to house dust mites in which case pillow hygiene becomes even more important. Put on a fresh, clean pillow case every day.
- Don’t go to bed with wet hair as this just adds to the moisture content of your pillow.
- Use zippered dust mite casings. A good casing will have high thread counts that allow the pillow to breathe while protecting you from mites and their allergens. Or look for special pillow covers to place under your normal pillow case. These come in a cotton mix and are anti-dust mites, anti humidity, anti bacterial and anti fungal but have the same feel as any other pillow case as far as comfort is concerned. They are of course highly recommended for those with allergies and asthma.
- Buy a dehumidifier for the bedroom since dust mites flourish on higher humidities (70% and above).
And to think that we thought that insomnia could be a problem!
- Look at replacing your pillows with a healthy fill that does not support mold and dust mites. These would have to be choices other than down or synthetic. Suggestions are cotton fill, wool fill, bamboo or the luxurious and expensive silk fill.