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Is your mattress making you ill?

Family Health 06/03/2015

© Getty Creepy crawlies, pathogenic germs and dodgy chemicals. They're the stuff of stomach-churning horror movies, but if your mattress has seen better days and nights, there's a chance you could be sharing your bed with these nasties and putting your health in danger. A tired, sagging mattress won't do your back any favours either, and may have a negative impact on your general wellbeing, not to mention the quality of your sleep.

March is National Bed Month and this year The Sleep Council is encouraging people to ditch their minging old mattresses for a better, healthier night's slumber. If your mattress is more than seven years old, its days are probably numbered. But while there's no need to stay awake at night worrying it could be a potential death trap, that old mattress could be affecting your health for the worse.

Creepy crawlies

Health hazards: allergies, itchy bites in susceptible people

Older mattresses are ideal habitats for dust mites, microscopic spiders that feed on dead skin cells. The average person sheds a whopping 450 grams of dead skin cells a year, many of which end up in their mattress, and as dead skin cells and dust mite colonies accumulate, the typical used mattress can contain up to 10 million of the little blighters. An infestation of dust mites can cause allergic reactions in some people and up to 80% of people with asthma are sensitive to the tiny creatures.

If you're keen to minimise your risk and can't stretch to a brand new hypoallergenic bed, vacuuming your mattress once a week or more often should help keep the dust mite population under control. Stripping the bed in the morning rather than making it is another good idea. Dust mites thrive in warm, humid environments, so exposing your mattress to dry air should help kill off a fair few. To be extra safe, you may want to invest in a dehumidifier, too.

Bed bugs are another risk to watch out for, especially in old second-hand mattresses. Though the apple pip-sized insects cause nothing more than itchy mosquito-like bites in susceptible people, they can be a pain to get rid of, bar chucking out the mattress and bagging a new one. The classic signs are small red bites on the skin that tend to appear in straight lines, reddish or rust-coloured stains on the sheets and the bugs themselves, which look like apple pips and tend to congregate along the bed frame and mattress seams.

Pathogenic bacteria and mould

Health hazards: allergies, infections

Over time, your mattress can provide the perfect breeding ground for a whole host of unpleasant bacteria and fungi. Studies suggest older, poorly looked-after mattresses can contain dubious levels of staphylococcus, enterococcus, norovirus and even MRSA, which can cause serious, antibiotic-resistant infections.

Mould is also a danger, especially if your bedroom is on the damp side. Most common mould spores such as cladosporium herbarum and penicillium notatum do not affect the majority of people, but they can trigger allergic symptoms in an unlucky few. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, itchy eyes and eczema. As with dust mites, the best way of avoiding a mould infestation or build-up of harmful bacteria is by drying out and airing the mattress: strip the sheets, vacuum the mattress regularly and get yourself a dehumidifier. Spritzing with an antibacterial spray and drying out the mattress before you make the bed may be helpful if you want to be 100% safe.

Dodgy chemicals

Health hazards: potential organ toxicity, allergies, increased cancer risk

Clapped-out mattresses may harbour more than just bugs, bacteria and mould spores. If yours is more than 10 years old, it may contain risky levels of PBDEs, nasty chemicals that have to the potential to cause liver, thyroid and nervous system damage. While the risk is fairly low, the EU banned PBDEs in 2005, so any mattress manufactured before the mid-2000s could be hazardous.

The jury's out on whether certain chemicals that are currently used in mattress manufacture could be harmful to health. The main culprits include formaldehyde, boric acid and modacrylic, which have been linked to allergies, organ toxicity and even cancer. The chemicals are thought to 'off-gass', meaning they leach out over time, slowly releasing toxins. Studies however suggest the negligible amounts used in individual mattresses may not be a cause for concern.

If you'd rather err on the side of caution, it might be worth investing in an organic wool or cotton mattress. Manufacturers claim that these unsprayed natural fibres meet EU fire regulations, but it's a good idea to double-check before you splash the cash.

Saggy springs and floppy foam

Health hazards: chronic neck, back and joint pain, interrupted sleep

It's not just pocket sprung mattresses that lose their oomph and end up sagging in places from years of wear and tear. Foam mattresses can also go out of shape and dip. An uneven mattress won't support your body correctly and has the potential to cause persistent neck, back and joint pain, as well as uncomfortable, interrupted sleep, another good reason to think about ditching your old one.

You can prolong the life of your mattress by rotating it regularly. This balances out the tension and stops undue pressure from damaging one side of the mattress. If your mattress has some sag going on and you can't afford to replace it, extra wooden support boards or a memory foam topper should help minimise the dip.

How do I know if my mattress needs replacing?

The Sleep Council recommends you change your mattress every seven years. If you're not sure whether your mattress is still fit for purpose, its MOT (Mattress Obsolescence Test) can help you decide if the thing's worth keeping or if it belongs in the nearest skip.

If you answer ‘Yes’ to three questions, you're not getting the best possible sleep. Five or more ‘Yes’ answers and it’s time to snap up a new bed.

• Is the mattress seven years old or more?

• Would it be embarrassing if neighbours saw it without its covers?

• Does it make suspicious noises in the night?

• Did you have your best recent night’s sleep in a bed other than yours?

• Are you waking up more frequently unrefreshed and aching?

• Do you and your partner roll towards each unintentionally in the middle of the night?

• Do you have enough space to sleep comfortably?

• Is it sagging?

• Does it feel lumpy in the night?

• Is the bed too small to give an undisturbed night’s sleep?

• Is the divan or base uneven or sagging?

• Are the legs and castors worn out?

If you'd like further info on the health risks of old mattresses and advice on buying the right mattress for your needs, vitsit The Sleep Council.

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