According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, irritants and allergens such as dust and dust mites can accumulate in fabrics, including pillows and bedding, a risk factor that makes the construction of a pillow an important choice for allergy sufferers. This is of special concern to people with asthma, who often experience an onset or exacerbation of symptoms at night.
For years, doctors presumed that feather pillows would contribute to asthma symptoms during the nighttime hours when many individuals are most vulnerable to attacks. Made from the softest feathers, or down, of geese or ducks, feather pillows have been suspected of causing allergic reactions in individuals who may be sensitive to the feathers themselves. For this reason, physicians have traditionally steered asthma patients toward synthetic pillows constructed with materials such as foam, polyester and even gel.
At least one study, published in "Journal Watch General Medicine" (November 12, 1996), found there was no compelling evidence of a connection between feather pillows and asthma. In fact, researchers who compared the amount of dust mites in polyester-fibre pillows to that of feather pillows discovered that the fibre pillows harboured eight times the amount of allergens by weight after six months than the feather pillows over the same period. It should be noted, however, that the researchers studied results in only nine homes, each using one feather pillow and one synthetic pillow.
Although feather pillows are among the softest, most comfortable pillows on the market, there are a number of natural and synthetic alternatives to feather pillows. For example, buckwheat pillows are constructed using the hulls of buckwheat for fill. The material--popular around the world and gaining use in the United States--is resistant to dust mites. Although the buckwheat hulls can produce a rustling sound that some light sleepers may find grating, these pillows are comfortable for most users.
Synthetic fill such as fibre latex and foam offer individuals with asthma an affordable alternative to natural materials, which can be expensive and hard to find. Many synthetic pillows are manufactured with additives that are designed to resist mould, mildew and allergens, making them attractive to those with sensitivity to dust mites. However, synthetic pillows are too firm for some users and can cause neck, head and back pain in some cases.
More and larger case studies are needed to sufficiently determine the allergy and asthma risks associated with feather pillows compared to synthetic pillows. In the meantime, individuals can reduce the risk by washing bedding in hot water and detergent at least once each week and washing pillows at least every six months. Pillows, whether natural or synthetic, should be dried completely in order to discourage the development of moulds and mildews that can trigger asthma symptoms.