Is your dorm room making you sick?
Are you sleeping with this?
Is your dorm room making you sick?

By Jay DeFoore

If you're one of those people with chronic nasal congestion, or if you have trouble sleeping at night and cat hair really gets your dander up, you're not alone.

Doctors say one in five college students suffer from allergies, and many don't even know it. Worse yet is the fact that many students living in dorms don't take the necessary steps to keep their environment clean and allergen-free. Poor circulation, cramped quarters and dirty carpet can diminish a student's health and efficiency at school or work. But help is available.

Asthma and allergy specialists cite three primary offenders in the arena of indoor allergens: Pet dander, dust mites and mold. Each poses a specific danger to allergy sufferers, but their adverse affects can be reduced with proper maintenance.

Dr. James L. Sublett, national medical director for Vivra Asthma and Allergy, says students with allergies need to take steps to control their environment as soon as they decide on a school. Sublett advises students to request a smoke-free room with air conditioning. Smoking is a major cause of lung irritation and air conditioners help filter out irritating particulates.

"A lot of times schools can accommodate them if they don't wait until (the last minute)," Sublett says, adding that most physicians would be happy to write a letter to a school on behalf of a student requesting additional health measures.

"Most of the college dorms I've been through are filthy. Most have one vacuum for each floor and it gets used once a year."


While pollen tops the list of outdoor allergens, microscopic insects called dust mites are the leading cause of indoor allergies. Before you go to sleep tonight, consider the following facts: A typical mattress may have anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million mites living inside it. And if your pillow is two years or more old, 10 percent of its weight is more than likely composed of dead mites and their fecal droppings. Every time you move you stir up a tiny cloud of the little buggers.

Is your dorm room making you sick?
Dust mite
Keep your dorm room allergen-free*:

1. Change pillowcases, sheets and blankets weekly.

2. Frequently wash all bedding (including mattress pads and comforters) in hot water (130 degrees). Also wash curtains.

3. Use only blankets made of nylon or cotton cellulose.

4. Use only pillows made with synthetic fillings.

5. Enclose the mattress top and sides with a plastic cover, thoroughly vacuuming mattress, pillows and the base of the bed.

6. In lieu of the plastic mattress cover, use "fitted sheets" to help prevent the accumulation of human skin scales on the mattress surface. 7. Damp dust the plastic mattress cover daily.

8. Vacuum the bed base and around the covered mattress weekly.

9. Vacuum carpet every day or, if you can, remove it.

*Source: Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Students who sleep on used mattresses should check to see if their bedding is encased in a non-allergenic, non-permeable plastic coating. If not, they should request one from housing officials. Pillows need to be sealed or washed along with bed sheets. (Note: Only HOT water at about 130 degrees will kill mites.) Carpet, rugs and blankets also house mites, so Sublett suggests washing blankets regularly and, if possible, avoid using floor coverings at all.

Michael Kaliner, a practicing allergist, knows first hand from his sons that dorms aren't always as clean as they could be. "Most of the college dorms I've been through are filthy," Kaliner says. "Most have one vacuum for each floor and it gets used once a year."

Despite how uncool it may seem, Sublett and Kaliner both say keeping a clean living area can cut down on a lot of unnecessary irritation. Air conditioner filters should be washed twice a month with bleach or Lysol to kill mold. Since mold requires moisture to grow, students should open windows or run fans to circulate the air and reduce moisture after showering. Ideally, humidity levels should be kept to between 30 and 40 percent. In warmer climates, an air conditioner or dehumidifier will sufficiently decrease humidity, but both should be cleaned regularly. Mold is especially bad in older, damp buildings with poor airflow, so don't be afraid to request a room change if it gets unbearable.

Another good way to cut down on indoor allergens, according to allergy experts, is to buy an air filter - but not just any air filter. HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate-Activated) air filters eliminate 99 percent of harmful allergens. Different companies make them, and most can be purchased at hardware or department stores for around $100.

Kaliner says students should take advantage of campus health centers and see a specialist if they experience chronic nasal congestion, post-nasal drip or sneezing. He also encourages students to get allergy shots when they're available.

A number of medications can provide relief to allergy sufferers. Sublett recommends non-sedating antihistamines such as Allegra and Claratin. For nasal sprays, Rhinocort, Flonase, Nasonex and Vasacort are best because they control the allergy, not just cover up the symptoms.

"People don't have to suffer," Sublett says. In addition to the preventative measures you can take in your dorm room, "There are medications and treatment to get their symptoms under control." (Allergy sufferers) should be able to lead an active and healthy lifestyle."