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How often should you wash the sheets? We tell you

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Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writers. CNN presents the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.

(The Conversation) – There’s nothing like getting into bed, wrapping yourself in the sheets, and snuggling into the pillow. But before you get too comfortable, you may want to know that your bed is not that different from a Petri dish.

The combination of sweat, saliva, dandruff, dead skin cells and even food particles make your bed the optimal environment for large numbers of germs such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and even small insects to grow.

These are just some of the things that are hidden under our sheets.

Your bed can harbor bacteria

Our beds can host a wide variety of bacterial species.

For example, an investigation that looked at hospital bedding found that Staph bacteria was common. These bacteria are generally harmless, but they can cause serious illness when they enter the body through an open wound — and certain species of Staph can cause more damage than others.

Staph is quite contagious and can cause skin infections, pneumonia, and worsen acne. Not only has E. aureus been found to live in pillowcases, research also shows that some strains are resistant to antibiotics.

Research also shows that, along with Staph, E. coli, and other similar bacteria, known as gram-negative bacteria, they are also common in hospital beds. Gram-negative bacteria are a serious health problem, as they are highly resistant to antibiotics and can cause serious human infections — including urinary tract infections, pneumonia, diarrhea, meningitis, and sepsis if they enter the body. Some strains of E. coli can also be very infectious and can cause urinary tract infections, traveler’s diarrhea, and pneumonia. That’s why proper hand washing after using the bathroom is important to avoid transferring this bacteria to other parts of your home.

Of course, hospitals are very different from our home environment. But that does not mean that it is not possible for these bacteria to enter our beds. In fact, about a third of people carry Staph gold bacteria in their bodies. People who carry E. aureus can shed the organism in large quantities, which means that it is fairly easy for Staph bacteria to transfer to your bed at home.

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Beds can attract insects

You lose about 500 million skin cells per day — while you sleep in bed. These skin cells can attract and be eaten by microscopic dust mites. These mites and their droppings can cause allergies and even asthma.

Bed bugs can also be a danger. Although these tiny insects (around 5mm long) have not been shown to transmit disease, they can cause red, itchy bites, along with a variety of mental health effects, including anxiety, insomnia, and allergies.

Bed bugs can be carried into homes on soft surfaces, such as clothing or backpacks, or by other family members.

Washing and drying bedding at a high temperature (around 55 ℃) will kill dust mites, but bed bugs may need to be professionally exterminated.

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Household germs

You can also carry germs to your bed from contaminated household items, such as clothing, towels, the toilet or bathroom, kitchen surfaces, or even pets.

Bath and kitchen towels harbor a variety of bacterial species, including E. aureus and E. coli. Improper washing can also spread these germs to other items, including our sheets. Even diseases like gonorrhea can be spread through contaminated towels or bedding.

Different microbial species will survive on fabrics for different periods of time. E. aureus, for example, can survive for one week on cotton and two weeks on fleece. And fungal species (such as Candida albicans, which can cause oral thrush, urinary tract infections, and genital yeast infections) can survive on fabrics for up to a month.

Influenza viruses can also survive on fabrics and tissues for 8-12 hours. Some other types of viruses, such as vaccinia virus, can live on wool and cotton for up to 14 weeks.

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Bed hygiene

Proper and regular washing is essential to ensure that germs do not become a real threat to health. But how often should you change the bedding?

Since we can’t wash our sheets every day, one thing you can do on a daily basis is air your sheet every morning. Since moisture builds up in them while we sleep, pulling the comforter back so the sheets can breathe before making the bed means that the sheets and mattress become a less attractive nesting place for bacteria and mites.

Mattresses can also be a great source of bacteria and microbes due to the accumulation of skin flakes, food particles, and fungi over the years. Since a mattress is difficult to wash, using a washable cover and washing it every one to two weeks can help reduce the number of germs that live there. Vacuuming the mattress and bed base every month will also help remove allergens and dust. Turn your mattress over frequently, or buy a new one if it is over ten years old.

It is recommended that you wash your bedding every week (or more often if possible), especially if you spend a lot of time in bed, sleep naked, or sweat a lot at night. It is also recommended to change the pillowcases every two to three days.

All bedding should be washed in medium to high temperatures (around 40 ℃ -60 ℃) to effectively kill germs. Avoid overloading washers and use enough soap, and make sure bedding is completely dry before using.

Take a shower before bed, avoid naps or get into bed while sweating, remove makeup, and avoid lotions, creams, and oils just before bed – this can help keep your bedding cleaner between washes. Not eating or drinking in bed, keeping pets off the sheets, and removing dirty socks will also help.

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Manal Mohammed is Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of Westminster.

Republished under a Creative Commons license from The Conversation.

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