Sniffling and sneezing? Seemingly suffering from back-to-back cold symptoms through winter? Winter allergies may be the culprit.
Perhaps less well known than spring allergens such as pollen and grass, winter allergies are just as disruptive and can be aggravated by everything from dust to mold brought in on a Christmas tree.
“There are different types of allergies, but if you’re talking about seasonal allergies, in the winter, we don’t have pollen, but we often see an increase in dust mites and mold allergies,” said Elias Akl of Northern Light Allergy and Immunology. Plus, he said, more time spent inside because of the cold and snow can result in more exposure to the allergens, increasing the risk of a reaction.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, allergies are one of the most common chronic conditions inflicting patients young and old each year nationwide. In fact, they report that more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year and they are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness nationwide. Symptoms range from a watery nose and itchy eyes to a life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis.
A reaction to an allergen begins in the immune system, which is designed to protect the body from organisms that cause illness. But with allergies, the immune system mistakes a harmless substance for one it should attack and overreacts producing Immunoglobulin E antibodies, which cause the reaction.
Akl said in addition, patients who already struggle with asthma can have even more trouble breathing.
“Mold allergies, especially, can affect asthmatic patients … they’ll get a nighttime cough, have trouble breathing or need to increase their use of a rescue inhaler,” he said.
Patients who already struggle with skin conditions such as eczema may see their symptoms worsen as their skin dries out even more in the cold.
As for telling the difference this winter between allergies and the common cold? That can be difficult, Akl said. But watch for a fever, in particular, and keep an eye on timing.
“Allergies tend to be consistent, so you’ll experience them all winter, and people with allergies [are] not having fevers or chills at night,” he said.
Worried about winter allergies and what you can do to minimize your exposure this year? Here are a few tips and tricks to try:
Keep humidity low
Dust mites are microscopic pests that typically live in household dust feeding off dead skin and dander shed by people and pets. They tend to live in mattresses, curtains, furniture, carpet and bedding. And according to Akl, they thrive in humidity. So, for those who prefer running humidifiers during the winter, he recommends keeping humidity at or less than 50 percent. Or, consider a dehumidifier if your home typically retains moisture in the winter.
Watch for mold
If mold is regularly growing in moist places like a bathroom, consider cracking a window or increasing ventilation. Remove mold from hard surfaces using soap and water and allow the area to dry completely. And, Akl said as the holidays near, consider checking Christmas trees for mold if it seems someone’s allergy symptoms appear after the tree is decorated.
Pay close attention to the bedroom
Because so many hours of each day are spent in the bedroom, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends paying extra attention to removing allergens typically found in that area of the house. That includes washing sheets and bedding in warm water on a weekly basis and covering pillows and mattresses with zippered dust mite covers. The National Institute of Environmental Health Services also recommends replacing wool or feather-filled bedding with synthetic materials and for the little ones, replacing traditional stuffed animals with those that can be washed.
For patients who struggle with eczema or dry skin in the winter, Akl recommends continuing to bathe daily. However, he said just as important, is patting dry and moisturizing immediately (within two to three minutes) of stepping out of a bath or shower. The more moisturizing, the better, he added. So continue reapplying creams multiple times a day.
Clear surfaces of dust
Akl says families should keep fans off in the winter as much as possible and surfaces clear of dust. And make sure to use a damp towel when dusting to avoid stirring up dust mites in the process or wear a face mask if the area is particularly dusty.
Treat symptoms as they arise
Minimizing exposure to allergens will help, but it probably won’t take away symptoms completely. So stock up on everything from nasal sprays and decongestants to plenty of tissues to treat the inevitable watery noses and itchy eyes.
Find out more
If you or your children are struggling with allergies this winter, consider a visit to an area allergist and immunologist who can help diagnose the condition and prescribe a treatment plan, if needed. Want to learn more? Find the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology on Facebook for additional information and resources.