What to Know About Mites

While many harmless species of mites live in our homes and on our bodies, there are a few types that could wreak havoc on your health.

Mites have been around almost as long as the Earth itself.

“Probably between 500 and 400 million years ago, mites were the first living organisms that came out of the ocean to walk on land,” says Dr. Ronald Ochoa, a research scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland. “Mites colonized the bottom of the ocean and are everywhere — including the Antarctic.”

Read on to learn more about mites and how to ensure they don’t become a problem in your home.

What Are Mites?

Mites are microscopic arachnids, which means they have eight legs and no antennae, just like spiders. Mites exhibit a broad range of feeding behaviors, including parasitism. “For instance, soil mites are everywhere, and are associated with soil, leaves, seeds, fungi and algae,” says Ochoa.

Mites are extremely adaptable creatures, living in every region around the world. They’re even able to thrive in much colder temperatures than humans.

While it might seem advantageous to eliminate mites from your life altogether, it’s simply not feasible, nor is it something to strive for. That’s right. The existence of mites is actually essential to our lives.

What Do Mites Look Like?

Peering through a microscope, a mite looks an awful lot like a tiny spider. And while some mites can barely be seen by the naked eye, you’d need a powerful microscope to see the smallest species. At around 70 to 80 microns, these are the smallest arthropods on the planet.

Some are surprisingly beautiful, like the peacock mite, which lives on citrus fruit and resembles a clown fish. Other species, such as dust and mold mites (200 to 600 microns), are the stuff of nightmares. They look as though they’re wearing loose elephant skin and have eight hairy legs.

Types of Mites

It’s estimated there are between five and 11 million species of mites in the world, equal to the number of all species of insects in the world. A few notable ones include:

  • Demodex folliculorum: These live in your eyebrows and feed on oils and dead skin cells. Despite how that sounds, they are actually beneficial, and we have a symbiotic relationship with them. They don’t even have an anus so they don’t defecate on us. How considerate.
  • Dust mites: The cousins of soil mites, dust mites can live in bedding, upholstered furniture and other soft surfaces in your home, such as carpets and curtains. They are one of the most common triggers for indoor allergic reactions in people, causing asthma and allergic rhinitis.
  • Straw itch mite: These feed mostly on organisms in hay bales, grass and leaves, but will bite humans and cause an itchy allergic reaction.
  • Bird mites: Also known as chicken mites, these pests live on the skin of birds such as chickens, pigeons and sparrows. But can find their way into your home. When this happens, they quickly become a problem, and can bite exposed skin. They do feed on human blood, but don’t burrow beneath the skin.
  • Rodent mites: While these critters prefer to suck on the blood of mice, they will also bite rats and people, leaving an itchy rash in their wake.

Where Do Mites Live?

The short answer is everywhere — all around you and on you, right now. They also live on your pets and other mammals you come into contact with. They’re on your food and in your plants. You’re basically surrounded. While this realization may give you the heebie-jeebies, most mites are harmless to humans. Many are even beneficial.

What Do Mites Eat?

Many species of mites survive on plants, fungi and other organic matter. But the moment humans built dwellings and brought their food indoors was the moment mites adjusted their meal plan. Instead of feasting only on soil and seeds, Ochoa says they began eating dead skin shed by humans. Some mites, such as rodent and bird mites, feed on the blood of their host animal.

What Are Signs of Mites?

Because mites are always present in our lives, there’s usually no obvious signs of them — until there’s a bigger problem.

  • Dust mites are microscopic, but will cause sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion and even asthma attacks.
  • If you have bird mites, you’ll likely see small shiny brown mites in areas where you rest, such as your bed or favorite chair. While their bites are painful and itchy, they usually aren’t dangerous.
  • Rodent mite bites cause a dermatitis similar to bedbugs — red, itchy bumps on the skin.

How To Get Rid of Mites

Thankfully, getting rid of unwanted mites is usually a straightforward undertaking. “Cleaning is the easiest way,” says Ochoa.

Be sure to dust and vacuum regularly and always empty your vacuum outside, as mites don’t automatically die once they get sucked up. Wash your bedding in hot water weekly and reduce the soft surfaces where mites congregate. In severe cases, it may be wise to steam clean or remove carpet and drapes entirely.

If you have a rodent or a bird nest problem, Ochoa says it’s time to bring in the professionals. A pest control service can help eliminate the nests and creatures so they aren’t making their homes within or near your home. Finally, look at your landscaping choices. Plants that are too close to doors and windows could be the culprit.

How To Prevent Mites

As with any pest problem, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Keeping your yard, gutters and home free of wild rodents and bird nests will go a long way toward ensuring you never have problems with those specific mites. And keeping a clean home will chase dust mites to a more hospitable (read: dirty) location where they can thrive.

As for the rest of the non-nuisance mites living among us, they’re here to stay.

Jill Schildhouse
I'm an award-winning writer and editor with 18 years of experience in content marketing and communications. The majority of my career has been in magazine publishing, where I have covered such topics as healthcare, fitness, food science, travel, insurance, automotive, home and garden, personal finance, and supply chain management. As a freelance writer, my columns and feature articles can be found in Oxygen magazine, Phoenix Home & Garden magazine, Muscle & Performance magazine, and Amazing Wellness magazine. Additionally, I write brochures, blog posts, website copy, press releases, advertorials, e-blasts, social media profiles, award submissions, and executive profiles for clients across a variety of industries. A few notable clients include The Vitamin Shoppe, The Rich Dad Company, Plexus, and Amazing Lash Studio.