Can my mattress be bad for me? Help me separate reality from woo.
August 1, 2015 10:33 AM   Subscribe

We've been waking up headachy and cranky in a room that always acquires a "stuffy" smell overnight (which in retrospect smells a lot like said mattress). We chalked it up to bad air circulation until we opened up the mattress, which to our untrained eyes looked awful. But we're not chemists, and on this question the internet is rife with woo. Can the mattress really be causing our sleep issues?

My girlfriend and I have both been waking up too early and not in great shape, sometimes getting as bad as headaches and light-headedness. We chalked it up to the room's bad air circulation and I ended up switching rooms. However, I had the feeling that I took my room with me somehow, and on a hunch I opened up the mattress. It's a (natural?) latex hand-me-down from a friend that's around 15 years old, and I've never opened it or gave it a second thought, it's quite comfortable.

When I looked inside, I was pretty shocked. There's a strong smell coming off it that reminds me of a nastier version of the smell from a fresh can of tennis balls, which made me feel a bit light headed after taking a determined whiff. The material is stiffening, crumbling, and gently running your finger along it leaves a residue of fine crumbs. A picture is here.

Of course we went straight to google and found an opaque industry whose products and claims are not well researched, and a lot of "they're killing us all"-style information coming from vocal anti-vax sorts, which we are decidedly not.

So, I'd like some input and a sanity check. Can a mattress really give you headaches and make you lightheaded in the morning? Is the visibly worn condition of this mattress something to worry about? At the end of the day, it's still a comfortable mattress and I don't want to shell out considerable money for a replacement if I don't have to.
posted by tempythethird to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Can a mattress really give you headaches and make you lightheaded in the morning?

Yes, of course it can.

The woo here you tend to read about is hyperbole regarding how severe the effects of mattress off-gassing are. Are you and your partner going to die because of toxic fumes, even if the mattress has petrochemical origins? Are you endangering your family? Probably not.

However, strong smells coming from the degradation of materials, natural or not, absolutely can and do cause lightheadedness and headaches. If the mattress is natural latex, it will biodegrade, and the process can indeed smell pretty bad - rubber *does* smell. The comfort qualities of one's mattress (including smell) can indeed affect one's sleep. 15 years is a fairly long time for a mattress.

Don't worry about woo or no woo. It's an old mattress. The inner materials are clearly degrading. You find it smelly in a yucky way. These are tangible, normal, provable things. Get a new mattress.
posted by eschatfische at 10:47 AM on August 1, 2015 [11 favorites]

Get rid of that mattress, it is deteriorating and making you sick. Mattresses do not have to cost a fortune; we even got a decent one from a thrift store, but it was unused and sealed in plastic. Beware of bed bugs in anything used, but you really can get a comfortable mattress for a decent price if you ignore all the hype and just try some out and get what feels comfortable.
posted by mermayd at 10:56 AM on August 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

That's too long to stay on the same mattress. Apart from the deterioration issues with it, you can also get repetitive stress injuries just from the way its contours force you to sleep. I think sleeping on a worn mattress contributed to my developing trigger finger, for instance.
posted by limeonaire at 11:41 AM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah 15 years is way, way old for a mattress. If you work the cost out to a per-year rate, you've saved a ton already and should probably go mattress shopping. We got a king-size pillow-top firm mattress at one of those perpetually "going out of business" mattress shops for like $600 including delivery. You'll have to shop around but it will totally improve your life in a measurable way.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 12:28 PM on August 1, 2015

It smells weird, it's old and it's making you feel bad. If there was ever a time to invest in a new mattress, I'd say now is the time. From what you describe, the mattress has a strong odor coming off it and that isn't going to go away. That would bother me. I also don't think mattresses are supposed to be used for 15 years. I know mattresses can be pretty expensive, but I recommend checking out Ikea. You can test them out at the store, and they have some really affordable ones. I think it's less expensive and better quality than the cheapest you will find at dedicated mattress stores.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:30 PM on August 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

for all the visible crumbly bits that are falling off when you touch it, there are innumerable microscopic crumbly bits that are also falling off, and are light enough to become airborne where you end up breathing them in. it's definitely time to get a new mattress.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:36 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm certainly not anti-vaccine, but I would be concerned with that mattress. I doubt your symptoms are directly connected to any toxic chemicals leaching out from it, but clearly the mattress is breaking down and you are breathing in the dust (the material covering the mattress is too porous to keep that material out). In the long term, I doubt that is good for you. This dust also likely contains mold and dust mite feces, and your symptoms could be reactions to those common allergens.

Get a new mattress! If cost is an issue, I know many people who are happy with their Ikea mattresses (apparently, they are packaged in such a way that they are easy to transport).
posted by girl flaneur at 12:44 PM on August 1, 2015

My allergy to latex took a long time to manifest. That bed would kill me. I got two RNs up the mountain who both think repeated exposure contributed to their health problems. You don't want to be sleeping on that.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 12:52 PM on August 1, 2015

Amazon has memory foam mattresses for under $300. Even if that mattress isn't making you sick, 15 years is too long to keep a mattress. Get yourself something clean and comfortable!
posted by chaiminda at 1:11 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

A good mattress should last around 10 years.
posted by aubilenon at 1:56 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

If the mattress is old and emitting a stuffy smell, it probably has mold or mildew. Remember it's largely a textile product parts of which can never be cleaned. It probably got wet enough at some point to get colonized, after which it's impossible to properly disinfect.

This is not a necessary or inevitable thing though. I've been sleeping on the same mattress since 1998 or so. It's been turned many times and is a bit lumpy no matter how I arrange it now but I sleep OK on it and it does not smell.

On viewing the picture: Yes, definitely get rid of it. All those cracks in the latex are probably breeding bacteria. Old latex should not be giving off a smell, and being a natural product there are things that can eat it.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:31 PM on August 1, 2015

Yes, it could be bad for you. The test is, how do you sleep elsewhere? If you don't have the same problems when you sleep elsewhere then get rid of the mattress. A fifteen year old hand-me-down mattress isn't worth getting sick over. Go shopping.
posted by myselfasme at 8:35 PM on August 1, 2015

DTFMA. (Dump the foul mattress already).
posted by slateyness at 6:24 AM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

After fifteen years your mattress is absolutely full of tiny little invisible flakes of your dead skin. (Human dander) And it is also full of tiny little dust mites who live on those flakes of dead skin and if there are enough of them cause allergy symptoms in pretty much everybody. The allergy symptoms include shortness of breath, which in turn can contribute to restless sleep and headache upon waking.

Doesn't matter what your mattress is made out of. Unless you can boil it and then dry it without it getting mildewed (no, you can't) it is time to haul that old nest out of your bedroom, down the stairs and out.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:44 AM on August 2, 2015

I absolutely love my Amazon memory-foam mattress, and it was about $250 and shipped right to the house. If the mattress smells bad, that's enough to mess with your sleep, no woo required.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 7:49 PM on August 2, 2015

I was gonna suggest a latex mattress topper, but a quick Google Search will result in you discovering that latex can give off this tennis ball scent you speak of. It could also be due to fifteen years of humans and bodily fluid on the mattress giving off the stench.
Of course, do some research and absolutely buy a new mattress. See if you want a memory foam, spring, latex, pillow top, blah blah blah. But for me, I have a six-year-old pillow top that started to get pretty beaten down and bought a 3" latex mattress topper from It doesn't give off any sort of scent at all and I sleep like a baby every damn night. So if you can't afford a new mattress, a nice topper is definitely a good alternative.

Good luck!
posted by omgkinky at 3:47 PM on August 3, 2015

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