It's not just fluffy feathers or marshmallowy synthetics in that comfy pillow of yours. There are probably also more than 1 million spores...

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It’s not just fluffy feathers or marshmallowy synthetics in that comfy pillow of yours. There are probably also more than 1 million spores of as many as 16 types of fungus.

That’s what an allergy researcher found after dissecting 10 pillows that had been slept on regularly for between 18 months and 20 years.

“I was surprised at the amount of fungi,” said Ashley Woodcock, professor at England’s University of Manchester. “It’s pretty staggering.”

Can it really be that bad?

“Open up an older pillow, and it’s a cesspool of mold, mildew, fungus, dust mites and mite feces,” said bedding expert Dan Schecter.

That’s a problem for people with allergies. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that some 10 percent of Americans have fungal sensitivity.

Woodcock began pondering pillows after seeing patients with such problems. “It struck me that bedding was a potentially important source of fungi,” he said. “The conditions … are so perfect: We put 20 gallons of sweat into our beds each year.”

Pillow talk

Pillows might be a breeding ground for fungal spores, new research shows. Such spores could aggravate allergies or asthma. To help reduce problems:

Use a breathable, moisture-repellent pillow-cover fabric, such as Gore-Tex. Pillow covers are not the same as pillowcases. These are covers you zip on over the pillow that protect the pillow from perspiration, stains, dust and allergens. Wash your pillow cover every time you wash your sheets.

Wash pillows at least four times a year. Read and follow the manufacturer’s care instructions. Most synthetic fill pillows can be machine-washed (wash on the gentle cycle, two at a time). Down pillows should be dry-cleaned. If the instructions say machine-drying is recommended, use a low setting until completely dry. To enhance fluffiness, dry it along with a clean tennis ball.

Fluff your pillow regularly. This incorporates fresh air into the pillow and helps maintain its shape.

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So, using a grant from England’s Fungal Research Trust, he examined five feather and five synthetic pillows.

Buying a new pillow?

The purpose of a pillow is twofold: to provide comfort and to keep your neck and spine aligned while you sleep.

Extra-firm pillows are best for those who sleep on their side. Side sleepers should make sure the height of the pillow is roughly the same as the length of their shoulders (the distance between the base of the neck and the end of the shoulder).

Medium-to-firm pillows are best for back sleepers. These provide support without tilting your head too far forward or allowing it to tilt too far back.

Medium-to-soft pillows are best for stomach sleepers. The risk for stomach sleepers is that your head will be pushed up and back while you sleep, putting stress on your neck and spine. Be sure your pillow keeps it all in line.

Natural-fill pillows, such as down-filled, typically are more expensive than most synthetic-fill pillows. Upside: They tend to last longer. Downside: They tend to be softer, and many allergy suffers cannot use them.

Not all pillows made of synthetic materials are inexpensive. Pillows made of space-age foam can cost $70 or more. Upside: These pillows provide maximum support and will not break down as quickly. Downside: The cost.

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His findings, published in the current Allergy journal, showed what Woodcock called a “miniature ecosystem” within both types, with dust mites eating fungi, and fungi using mite waste as a source of nitrogen and nutrition.

A bedtime bond

About 70 percent of Americans say a comfortable pillow is “very important” to a good night’s sleep. That’s according to a 2004 Roper poll done for the Carpenter Co., which does product development and testing for bedding manufacturers, and where Schecter is a vice president.

But pillows are more than important. Folks are downright fond of them.

George Bush took a favorite feather pillow on the campaign trail during the 2000 presidential election.

Mark Shields had a beloved pillow for 19 years. In his junior year in high school, he was having complexion problems. Someone suggested to his mother that a new pillow might help.

The purchase turned into a two-decade relationship. Shields took the pillow along to “crash with friends,” even to an overnight prom event.

Despite “a succession of very nice pillowcases,” he retired the pillow — he even knows the date — on Sept. 6, 2003. But he couldn’t part with it until Dec. 31, 2004, “when I put it in the trash chute after a moment of silence.”

Shields added that although the pillow was old, it never made him sick.

Laundering tips

Woodcock said we need more research into the problems old pillows might cause: “It’s important to people with allergies, or immune-suppressed individuals.”

He suggests a pillow cover that’s breathable yet moisture-repellent, such as one made with Gore-Tex-type fabric, to help keep fungal spores from aggravating allergies.

The Soap and Detergent Association advises washing pillows “at least four times a year” to reduce allergens, said spokesman Brian Sansoni.

Wash two pillows at a time in the gentle cycle; halfway through the dryer cycle, remove and fluff to prevent lumps.

Just don’t try to wash it the way Aaron McBride of Oak Park, Calif., did.

Two years ago, his 20-year-old dense feather pillow — nicknamed “The Rock” — was looking “pretty grungy.”

So he plopped it in the bathtub with some mild detergent and “mashed it around with my hands and feet.”

McBride was on the third rinsing when a seam in the pillow split.

“It’s surprising how many feathers are in a pillow,” he recalled.

He first tried “putting the feathers back in the case, but I quickly realized how futile that would be.”

Thus ended The Rock.

Shields has had other pillows but none he likes as well. And he has no regrets spending years with his head resting upon what was no doubt a growing “cesspool” of fungi.

“When you have a favorite pillow,” Shields said, “you make exceptions.”