After a tiresome day, there is nothing better than crawling into bed and laying your head down onto a soft, comforting pillow. But before you drift off into the sweetest of dreams, take a moment to think about the hidden dangers lurking within your pillow. It could turn out to be your worst nightmare...
A 2006 study looked into the fungi living in pillows, and they discovered that the most common 3 fungi were: Aspergillus fumigatus, Aureobasidium pullulans and a yeast, called Rhodotorula. What’s frightening is that Aspergillus fumigatus, the most common fungus found in the pillows, is known to have implications for patients who have respiratory disease, especially those individuals suffering from asthma and sinusitis.
The study went further, discovering that fungi were more prolific in synthetic fibres than natural ones. Over the past 30 years, our bedding buying habits have changed from feather and flock pillows, sheets and blankets to mainly polyester pillows and quilts. This means that we are being exposed to more of this potentially harmful fungus and that our pillows aren’t as hygienic as we think.
For people living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a respiratory illness that affects 400,000 people in Oceania, the threat from this harmful fungus is very real. A recently published study found that up to 4% of COPD sufferers will develop infectious aspergillus, which has a startling mortality rate of 40-70%. This means that in any one year, approximately 7000 people die prematurely from invasive aspergillosis.
And the most common fungus that causes invasive aspergillosis is Aspergillus fumigatus, the same fungi that is the most commonly found in pillows.
Even for those who don’t suffer from COPD, there is still cause for concern from invasive aspergillus.
More than ever, people are buying pillows that are branded as being “allergy friendly” and these are often made from buckwheat, but contrary to their allergy friendly claims, they can sometimes be the cause of someone’s reaction.
As well as being a hotbed for aspergillosis, buckwheat has been a known allergen since 1909. A report from 2003 outlines the case of a 24year old man in the US who went to his doctor reporting that he had been suffering from a worsening cough for the past three months, eventually becoming asthmatic. Any kind of medication prescribed to him was ineffective, yet the patient noted that anytime he spent time away from home his symptoms would improve, only to worsen when he returned.
This led the doctors to test for any allergies the patient may be suffering from, and the results showed that he was suffering from a strong allergic reaction to both his buckwheat pillow as well as the aspergillus fungi growing inside of it. After removing both buckwheat pillows from his apartment, his cough and other symptoms completely resolved within four days.
So how can you protect yourself from potentially harmful and hidden microbes in your pillows? One way would be to use a pillow protector to limit the physical contact you may be having with anything harmful within the pillow. Additionally, replacing your pillows more frequently will reduce the amount of harmful Aspergillus fumigatus you’re being exposed to. Moreover, being aware of what your pillows are made from will help you better understand the potential risks you are living with. If you use a synthetic or buckwheat pillow, it may be worth looking into replacing them with a natural feather pillow, which has fewer porous holes, therefore reducing contamination.
Perhaps most important of all is simply being aware of the risks of infectious aspergillosis on susceptible people. Taking these simple precautions can help reduce the rate of premature deaths from infectious aspergillosis in the community.
Hi there. My name is Dr. Cameron Jones and I'm an environmental microbiologist, and do I have an interesting show this week. Yep, we're going to be talking about something which affects all of us.
Now, we're going to be talking about the hidden dangers in pillows. And why this is an interesting topic and potentially affects every single one of us is because a fascinating publication came out in the research literature just one week ago. And it was focusing on something called invasive aspergillosis. And anyone who has been following my livestreams knows that I am continually focusing on the global impact of fungal infections and exposures and what we can do about it for better health. And what better way to introduce this whole topic of invasive aspergillosis than to talk about the microbiology of pillows. And to do that, I want to go back to a well-known publication about fungal contamination of bedding.
Now, why might this be important? Well, the global market for pillows is actually quite astronomical. And some great research, which I discovered on the internet, showed that in 2020, the market for pillows was at $16 billion, and by 2024, the dollar has increased to $18 billion. That is a lot of pillows that are being sold, but did you ever think that some pillows may be better or worse for your health, and why is this important?
Well, obviously you're in close proximity to the pillow each and every night. So the way in which the microbes colonize the pillow could have an impact on your respiratory health. And so I'm going to summarize some of the key points from this very important publication on pillows hiding fungal infections. And what the scientists did is that they got a range of different pillows of age one and a half to 20 years old and they swabbed them and then they cultured those swabs at two temperatures, body temperature and also ambient room temperature. To simulate what could be recovered, in a sense, when your head is close to the pillow and it's warm, 37 degrees Celsius, and then during the day when no one's sleeping on the pillow. And you know what they discovered? That the dominant fungus was called Aspergillus fumigatus, closely followed up by another fungus called Aureobasidium, and then a pathogenic yeast.
Now, why is this important? Well, this aspergillus fumigatus was recovered not only from these synthetic pillows, which I might add had higher levels of these fungi, but also from the feather pillows. But why this important? Well, with the impact of fungal exposure to people, we want to be able to do proactive health impacts to reduce the exposure risks to people. And if we look into, as I mentioned, the new publication that was focusing on COPD ... I need to do fine COPD because this is related to the same fungi that are found dominating in pillows. COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. And it's a really serious lung infection and characteristic symptoms include cough, wheeze, tightness of chest, breathlessness. Now every year, approximately one in 10 people diagnosed with COPD will need to be hospitalized.
Now, if we look at these incredibly high and worrying statistics, up to 4% of those individuals will go on to develop an infection called invasive aspergillosis. And the dominant fungus that causes invasive aspergillosis is this fungus, which is the same one found in the pillows. And this high mortality rate is extremely worrying. And in the publication that just came out, all the different countries worldwide have been broken down into the different statistical proportions of those individuals with COPD and then those that went on to develop invasive aspergillosis. And if we look at Australia and the cluster of continents around us that form Oceania, we discovered that there are approximately 400,000 people who have COPD. That means that there are approximately 7,000 premature deaths caused by invasive aspergillosis every single day.
Now let me go back to some other literature, talking about pillows and their relationship with aspergillosis. There's another type of allergies that are very common, and that is buckwheat allergy. So people who take and have allergic reactions, asthma and sinusitis often will be tested for their allergy exposure levels. And buckwheat allergy is very closely connected to invasive aspergillosis or aspergillus allergy. And so the point that I'm making here is that it is very, very important to be aware of the fact that pillows that are filled with buckwheat may not be as allergy friendly as we have been led to believe.
And so if we drill into the research literature, a particularly important publication was looking at the connection between buckwheat and aspergillus allergies and symptoms such as asthma and allergic rhinitis. And in this particular publication, the patient found that when he no longer was spending time at home, his allergy symptoms went away. And so the clinician did exposure testing and found that buckwheat and aspergillus were the dominant inducers of the allergy. And if you search the internet for allergy-friendly pillows, you're going to discover that buckwheat is one of the number one natural filling materials used for pillar production.
Now, let me remind you that the increase in pillow sales is going up to $18 billion by 2024. Now a lot of those are going to be new pillows manufactured and they're going to be filled with a particular material, which is known to be connected with aspergillus allergy. Now, remember, we want to reduce the number of premature deaths from those who end up with COPD diagnosis, who end up being hospitalized. We don't want so many of them to develop invasive aspergillosis.
So if you want to reduce your risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis and potentially going on to develop more serious problems, what can you do? Well, you need to protect yourself, and the best way to protect yourself is to use a pillow protector. It's something very simple and it will limit your connection with your mucus membranes to being in contact with pillows, even if they contain buckwheat or synthetic materials. But I would urge you to look at what filling is inside your pillow if you have any type of respiratory issues.
In any case, each week I aim to bring you cutting-edge research about the global impact of fungal infections. My name is Dr. Cameron Jones. You can drill into the publications that I have used in this week's live stream at the bottom of the show notes or on the podcast. In any case, stay safe, have a great week. Bye for now.