Feather Allergy

Allergy to Down Feathers

Feather pillows have less dust mite allergen than synthetic pillows..

One of the more common images of indoor allergies would be that of feather allergy. Imagine a group of children having a pillow fight, and one of the pillows breaks apart. The room is filled with feathers floating in the air, resulting in sneezing attacks among the children. This is the image that most of us think of when we think of feather allergy, so for that reason we believe that people with nasal allergies should avoid feather pillows.

  Therefore, most people with allergies opt for synthetic pillows rather than feather pillows. Is this the right thing to do? Should people with allergies, or children at risk for allergies, use synthetic pillows or feather pillows?

Feather Allergy is Not Common

First of all, allergy to down feathers is not particularly common. A study published in 1998 by researchers in Finland examined the rate of feather allergy in a group of 269 adults in an allergy clinic. Positive skin testing to commercially available feather allergen was found in only 9% of the subjects. Two-thirds (67%) of the subjects with positive skin tests to feathers also had positive skin tests or blood tests for dust mite allergy.

Those subjects with positive feather skin tests performed a nasal provocation challenge using feather extract, which involved placing feather extract inside the nostrils of the subjects and then measuring signs and symptoms of allergies.

None of the subjects reacted to the feather nasal provocation challenge, which means that they weren’t really allergic – rather they simply had a positive allergy test.

The researchers then performed a test called RAST inhibition, which involves mixing serum blood samples of the subjects with dust mite allergy with purified dust mite extract.

Then, this mixture is tested for evidence of feather allergy. The RAST inhibition showed a reduction of allergenic activity of 70% when dust mite extract was mixed with the serum blood samples. This means that the dust mite extract bound to most of the feather IgE antibody present in the serum because of cross-reactivity. Once the IgE was bound to the dust mite extract, it could not be detected by RAST. The researchers theorized that there was cross-reactivity between the dust mite and feather extracts, or possibly cross-reactivity between dust mites and bird mites – which are commonly found in unrefined feathers.

The researchers concluded that true feather allergy is extremely rare.

Feather Pillows Are Probably Better for Allergies Than Synthetic Pillows

The presumption for many years has been for people with allergies to avoid using feather pillows, and instead use pillows filled with synthetic material. However, numerous studies have found that using synthetic pillows may result in higher rates of allergies and asthma in children.

Conversely, the use of feather pillows and quilts was actually protective against the development of allergy and asthma symptoms in children. The reason for this is probably due to the much higher dust mite and pet allergen concentrations of synthetic pillows compared to feather pillows. Synthetic pillows have shown approximately 8 times the amount of both dust mite and cat/dog allergens compared to feather pillows. Other bedding materials, such as synthetic duvets, show 15 times the amount of dust mite allergen compared to feather duvets.

The most likely reason why feather pillows have far less dust mite allergen is due to the pillow covers, which need to be more tightly woven in order to keep the feather from poking through. These tightly woven covers likely prevent dust mites from entering into and inhabiting the pillow. While feathers can support dust mite growth, modern techniques involve washing and drying the feathers in high heat prior to manufacturing feather pillows. These techniques kill and denature any dust mite proteins before the feathers are stuffed inside the pillows.

Therefore, despite common thinking, feather pillows are preferable over synthetic pillows for people with allergies and asthma, as well as a way to possibly decrease the chance of a child developing allergies and asthma.


  1. Siebers RW, Crane J. Does Bedding Affect the Airway and Allergy? International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2011;2(2):65-75.
  2. Kilpio K, Makinen-Kiljunen S, Haahtela T, Hannuksela M. Allergy to Feathers. Allergy. 1998;53:159-64.

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