What’s Hiding in Your Dirty Pillows and Upholstery? (And Can It Make You Sick?)

The best ways to keep your home’s comfiest places germ-free
vacuuming the sofa

When you lay your head down after long, hard day, the last thing you’re probably thinking about is how clean your pillow is. But that actually might be something worth considering at some point.

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“Pillows and upholstery can carry germs of all types,” says family medicine doctor Amy Zack, MD. “And the biggest risk is actually insects, not bacteria or viruses.”

But before you decide to throw away all your furniture and bedding and start anew, Dr. Zack says there are simpler (not to mention cheaper) solutions. Here’s how to minimize germs in your home’s comfiest places.

Upholstery’s hidden health hazards

Pillows and upholstery can carry bacteria and allergens. But Dr. has some good news: The risk of contracting the coronavirus from these fabric surfaces is very low. “The virus that causes COVID-19 does not seem to live a long time on clothing and other fabric-type surfaces,” she says.

The biggest health risks from your pillows and cushions come from tiny insects, such as dust mites, bed bugs and fleas.

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Can dust mites and bed bugs make you sick?

Insects on your upholstery can do more than stimulate your gag reflex. They can negatively impact your health, too. Here’s how:

  • Dust mites: These microscopic pests commonly trigger allergies and asthma. “They’re probably the most common type of insect that you would find on an upholstered surface, such as a couch, pillow or bed,” Zack notes.
  • Bed bugs and fleas: Bites from these insects can leave uncomfortable welts on your skin. Scratching those itchy bites could cause a secondary skin infection to develop. 

What are signs of dust mites and other pests and microbes?

“If you have chronic asthma and allergies, dust mites are always a part of the conversation,” Dr. Zack relates. “If somebody has allergy symptoms, particularly during the night, then we might recommend they get pillowcases that prevent dust mites.”

Signs of bed bugs and fleas are more obvious — you can see them with the naked eye. “You may also develop insect bites after sitting on furniture,” Dr. Zack says. If you have the stomach for it, a simple image search online can help identify which pest it is.

When it comes to bacteria or viruses, it’s harder to tell what’s hanging out on your pillows. But a good rule of thumb is that if members of your household have the same infection or illness, assume there’s a virus or bacteria lurking. “Clean all of the surfaces in your home, including the upholstered furniture,” Dr. Zack says.

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How do you clean dirty upholstery?

While cleaning some fabrics can be tricky, Dr. Zack says simple vinegar solutions and upholstery cleaners can adequately disinfect them.

“Bleach, in general, is best for disinfecting, but it’s not the best choice for fabric surfaces,” she says. “Instead, use a cleaner to wipe the surface with a sponge or light brush and then let it dry. You can also use a wet/dry vacuum.”

Dr. Zack also offers these recommendations to avoid problems with germs, pests and allergens:

  • Regularly clean and vacuum upholstered surfaces and in your home.
  • Cover fabric surfaces. “Dust mites need access to people to live,” Dr. Zack says. “If you cover a mattress or pillow in a dust mite cover, it prevents them from living on that surface and getting to you.”
  • Keep pets free from fleas.
  • Avoid secondhand upholstered furniture from unknown sources.
  • Wash bed linens and pillowcases in hot water and with bleach, if possible, weekly.
  • Buy products that say they are made for allergy and dust mite prevention.

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