Winter means cold weather, hot cocoa, holiday treats, and…allergies? Most of us don’t associate allergies with wintertime, because seasonal allergies occur mostly during the summer, spring, and fall. But with those short and cold winter days driving us indoors, winter shuts us inside our homes—which can ultimately expose us to some well-known winter allergies.
Though you may have experienced seasonal allergies before, it’s important to know that winter allergies post slight different problems. Learn how to avoid them or minimize triggers to help you stay healthy and well all winter long.
##What causes winter allergies?
Unlike seasonal allergies, which occur when your immune system overreacts to an outdoor allergen, winter allergies occur when your immune system reacts to an allergen that is found inside your home. There are a variety of indoor allergens that can trigger symptoms, and what triggers one person may not trigger another.
Some of the most common indoor allergens include:
- Dust mites. Dust mites are tiny bugs that live inside house dust, but are too small to see without a microscope. They live in warm, damp environments, and their dead bodies and feces can get into household dust. They are usually found in bedding, furniture, and carpets, and are made worse by indoor heating and by not regularly washing your bedding.
- Pet dander. Most frequently, pet allergies are triggered by exposure to pet dander, or the dead flakes of skin a pet sheds. Pet dander from dogs or cats can show up on almost any indoor surface, from beds to carpets and upholstery. The more time your pets spend inside, especially in your bedroom and living room, the worse your allergies may be.
- Cockroach droppings. Cockroaches contain a protein that is an allergen for many people. The body parts, saliva and waste of cockroaches are all allergens. You’ll usually find these insects—and their droppings—in dark, moist areas, like kitchen cupboards, under sinks, and behind appliances. Damp weather, food, and crumbs can drive cockroaches indoors, increasing your chances of seeing them in winter.
- Mold. If you have a mold allergy, your immune system will react when you breathe in mold spores. Dampness can promote mold growth, and it likes to grow in dark, moist areas like bathrooms, basements, and under sinks. Humidifiers, leaky pipes and faucets can make the issues worse.
What are the symptoms of winter allergies?
The symptoms of winter allergies are similar to the symptoms of seasonal allergies. They include:
- Watery, itchy eyes
- Dark circles under the eyes, known as allergic shiners; caused by nasal congestion
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Rashes or dry, itchy skin
- Morning headaches
- Postnasal drip
- Sore or itchy throat
- Wheezing and shortness of breath if you have allergic asthma
Do I have winter allergies or a cold?
Winter allergies and colds share a number of common symptoms. Colds, however, are caused by viruses and spread through contact with another infected person. Allergies, on the other hand, are triggered by an allergen. Allergy symptoms occur when your body produces an inflammatory response to those allergens, sometimes called a histamine reaction.
Another difference is timing. Colds, for example, end once your body fights off the infection. Allergies, however, can happen anytime you’re exposed to allergens, and symptoms will last as long as you are breathing in those allergens.
Here is a detailed symptom breakdown:
- Body aches
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- No eye watering
- No eye itching
- No body aches
- No fever
- Runny nose
- No sore throat
- Eye watering and itching
How do I get rid of winter allergies?
Through a combination of at-home treatments and clinical interventions, relief from winter allergies is possible. Here are some common treatments:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications. Antihistamines are OTC medications that can relieve allergy symptoms when taken regularly. They work by blocking histamine, a symptom-causing chemical released by your immune system during an allergic reaction. They can help with symptoms like a runny nose and itchy or watery eyes. Some of these drugs can make you feel drowsy and tired, however, so take them with caution when you need to drive or do other activities that require alertness.
- Decongestants. Decongestants can provide quick and temporary relief from nasal and sinus congestion. You may be able to take them in pill form, as a liquid, or as a nasal spray or drops.
- Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids relieve symptoms by suppressing allergy-related inflammation, and can lower swelling that comes with allergies. They prevent and treat sneezing and stuffy, runny, or itchy nose, and help with red, itchy eyes.
- Allergen immunotherapy. Allergen immunotherapy is usually for treating chronic, severe allergy symptoms. By carefully and gradually increasing your exposure to certain allergens over time, it’s possible to train your immune system not to react to these allergens. Immunotherapy is usually given as a series of injections, usually one or two times a week.
How can I prevent winter allergies?
- With a little bit of effort, there are a few ways to manage your winter allergies by minimizing your exposure to specific triggers. Here are some things you can do:
- Cover your bedding with special protective casing, including your pillows and mattresses. This will help with dust mites.
- If you’re affected by pet allergies, make certain rooms (like your bedroom) off-limits to your pets.
- Wash your clothes, bedding, and any removable upholstery in hot water. This will reduce dander and dust mite build up.
- Increase indoor moisture by setting up a humidifier in your home. Ideally, to prevent mold growth, indoor relative humidity should be somewhere between 30 and 50 percent.
- Dust and vacuum frequently, including under and behind furniture.
- If you see mold growth, clean with water and 5% bleach solution.
- Put away and seal food, and clean up any crumbs in your kitchen and dining area.
If your winter allergies are intruding on your day-to-day life, if you are wheezing or having trouble breathing, or if allergy treatments aren’t working, talk with your provider. They can help you devise strategies for avoiding your triggers and managing your symptoms, and can help you figure out which medication is best for you.
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