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You are Burying Your Face in a Hot Zone for Fungal Spores Every Night: Your Pillow

If you are the type of person who checks your ceiling for spiders before falling asleep, or you cringe at the thought of a bug coming anywhere near your body, you may want to brace yourself. There is a "miniature ecosystem" -- complete with dust-mite-eating fungi - -living and thriving in the place you'd least expect it: your pillow.

And it doesn't matter if you just bought your pillow or have had it for 20 years. In a new study published in the journal Allergy, researchers at the University of Manchester sampled 10 pillows that were between 1.5 and 20 years old. ALL of the pillows had fungal spores -- more than 1 million per pillow!


Researchers identified several thousand spores of fungus per gram of pillow in their study.

Each sample contained four to 16 different species, and the one that was the most common, Aspergillus fumigatus, is also the one that's most likely to cause disease. Bread and vine molds and fungus usually found in damp showers and walls were also found.

"We know that pillows are inhabited by the house dust mite, which eats fungi, and one theory is that the fungi are in turn using the house dust mites' feces as a major source of nitrogen and nutrition (along with human skin scales). There could therefore be a 'miniature ecosystem' at work inside our pillows," said Professor Ashley Woodcock who led the study.

How Fungus in Your Pillow Could Make You Sick

The idea of laying your face on a fungus-loaded pillow is, well, disgusting. But even worse than that is the idea that this fungus can actually make you sick -- and it can.

Aspergillosis is the name of the infection, growth or allergic reaction caused by Aspergillus fumigatus (again, the type most likely to be in your pillow and also found growing on dead leaves, stored grain, ground pepper, house plants, compost piles and other decaying vegetation). It can cause illness in three ways:

  1. As an allergic reaction; people with asthma are most at risk.

  2. As a growth in a healed lung cavity from a previous disease like tuberculosis or lung abscess. This results in a fungus ball being formed and potential bleeding in the lungs.

  3. As an invasive infection with pneumonia. This can cause blindness and spread to any organ in the body, particularly the heart, lungs, brain and kidneys. People with suppressed immune systems, such as those with cancer, AIDS, leukemia, organ transplants or chemotherapy, are almost exclusively the ones at risk.

In fact, Aspergillosis is the leading infectious cause of death in people with leukemia and bone marrow transplant patients. It is also becoming increasingly common among other patient groups and is difficult to treat. As a result, up to one out of every 25 patients who die in modern teaching hospitals in Europe have the disease.

Fungus Linked to Chronic Sinusitis

Nearly 17 percent of U.S. adults suffer from chronic sinusitis. Last year, researchers found, for the first time, that the condition appears to be an immune disorder caused by fungus.

The researchers suggested that when fungi lodge into the mucus lining of the sinuses, people prone to sinusitis have an immune response, which causes the fungus to be attacked. Although this seems like it would be a positive move, it actually leads to damage of the sinus membranes and full-blown sinusitis symptoms like thick mucus and loss of the sense of smell.

Fungal Spores

This is Aspergillus fumigatus, the most common type of fungus found in pillows.

"We showed in 1999 that fungal organisms were present in the mucus of 96 percent of patients who had surgery for chronic sinusitis, and that inflammatory cells were clumped around the fungi, which indicated to us that the condition was an immune disorder caused by fungus. But many doctors didn't believe us," said researcher David A. Sherris, M.D., interim chair of the University at Buffalo Department of Otolaryngology.

Lower Respiratory Infection and Fungus

A study published in the July 2003 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found a link between fungi in homes and lower respiratory infections in infants. Out of 492 homes surveyed, 324 had high levels of at least one type of fungi. Infants who lived in homes with more than the 90th percentile for one or more types of fungi had an 86 percent increased risk of developing a lower respiratory illness by their first birthday.

However, fungi affect everyone differently, so not everyone who's exposed will have a problem. "People are routinely exposed to more than 200 different species of fungi. Exposure occurs universally and is impossible to avoid completely. Often, there are no adverse effects, but, at times, exposure to fungi can directly and in-directly influence an individual's health," said Diane R. Gold, M.D., M.P.H., of Harvard Medical School.

Fungus may Worsen Asthma

The Aspergillus fungus can exacerbate asthma in adults and cause allergic sinusitis in people with allergic tendencies. Since exposure from a pillow is constant, it could be particularly problematic.

Said Professor Woodcock, "Since patients spend a third of their life sleeping and breathing close to a potentially large and varied source of fungi, these findings certainly have important implications for patients with respiratory disease--especially asthma and sinusitis."

How to Make Your Pillow Fungi-Free

In all honesty, it may be downright impossible to find a pillow with zero fungus spores, dust mites or other allergens. In fact, your entire bed and bedding, not just your pillow, are at risk from these substances.

There are, however, steps you can take to reduce fungi on your favorite pillow:

  • In the first study, researchers tested both synthetic and feather pillows. Although both had fungus, the synthetic versions had even higher numbers of fungal spores. A natural version may be less problematic.

  • Pillows can be washed, either by hand, in your washing machine on the gentle cycle or dry cleaned (check the label for instructions). This should help to reduce the fungi and will also (temporarily) get rid of dust mites, mildew and sloughed off skin cells.

  • Consider putting your pillows in plastic covers. The fungi will then be kept away from your face and airways.

  • Try a latex or pure wool pillow. Latex pillows are antibacterial, non-allergenic and resistant to mildew, mold, fungus and even dust mites. Wool pillows discourage the growth of mildew, mold and fungus because the wool helps to wick away excess moisture (they're also inhospitable to dust mites).

Recommended Reading

26 Simple & Smart Steps to Prevent Allergy Flare-Ups

Dust Dangers: What Exactly is Dust, and Why Can it be so Dangerous?


The University of Manchester Press Release October 14, 2005

Chronic Sinusitis is Immune Disorder Caused by Fungus

Fungi Associated With Lower Respiratory Infection

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