Some allergy sufferers may experience relief from coughing, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes due to freezing temperatures - but not everyone is in the clear. Millions of people have perennial allergic rhinitis – or year-round allergy symptoms – and are often sensitive to indoor triggers, like dust and dander. This is a big problem in the winter months, when you spend more time inside with doors and windows closed. There are ways to get relief, however.
Dr. Rand Malone, board-certified allergist and immunologist with HCA Midwest Health, discusses some of the most irritating symptoms and common indoor triggers, as well as a few treatment options.
Symptoms of seasonal allergies
“Typically, your immune system protects against bacteria and viruses,” Dr. Malone says. “But if you have an allergy, your body has an oversensitive response to something that normally should not cause a reaction.”
Allergy symptoms include:
- Itchy throat and mouth
- Excess mucus
- Coughing and wheezing
- Itchy, watery or swollen eyes
- Sneezing and runny nose
“Allergens can also worsen asthma, eczema and sinus problems, so it's especially important to avoid triggers if you have any of these conditions,” says Dr. Malone.
Don't mistake allergy-related coughing and sneezing for a common cold or flu, which peaks from December to February. “These ailments have different triggers, symptoms and treatments. A fever, body aches and a sore throat often point to a cold, but cold and allergy symptoms vary widely,” Dr. Malone says. “If symptoms last longer than a few weeks or include itchy eyes, you may be experiencing an allergy. See your doctor for discomfort that won't quit to rule out other infections like flu or COVID.”
1. Pet dander
Your furry friend can cause winter allergies. Pet allergies, caused by cats, dogs or any animal with fur, are common but those with a family history of allergies or asthma may have a greater risk. Symptoms can appear within minutes of exposure to a pet or take up to 12 hours to develop.
“If you know you are allergic to certain pets, the best thing you can do is minimize contact,” Dr. Malone says. “To help alleviate symptoms vacuum your carpets often and reduce pet dander by giving your pet a bath often. Pet dander can stick to carpets, furniture and clothing. Try to keep animals out of the bedroom and off furniture.”
Dr. Malone also recommends using a HEPA air cleaner in the rooms that the pet resides and change filters every 6 months.
A family history of asthma and allergies make you more likely to react to animal allergens. If a close relative is allergic to pets, get tested before you bring one home.
2. Dust mites
“The three most common hiding place for dust mites are the bed or mattress, carpeting and upholstered furniture, Dr. Malone says. "We get most of our dust mite exposure from our beds and bedrooms, because people usually spend most of their time there," he adds.
To reduce symptoms, lower in-home humidity with a dehumidifier and empty the chamber regularly. You can limit the amount of dust in your home by:
- Using allergy-proof bed covers and wash bedding weekly in hot water
- Keeping floors and surfaces clean and free of clutter
- Avoiding wall-to-wall carpeting if possible and vacuum rugs and carpets once or twice a week
Cleaning is necessary to minimize symptoms, but it can disturb surface dust in the process. Limit exposure to the airborne allergen by dusting with a damp rag and wearing a mask while cleaning. You may also want to leave the house a few hours after tiding up.
3. Cockroaches and droppings
You may experience symptoms without even knowing the critters are in your home. Reduce exposure to cockroach allergens by keeping your home clean and tidy.
- Store food in sealed containers and keep garbage can lids tightly closed
- Seal cracks and crevices in walls and around windows
- Fix leaky pipes and faucets, which can attract roaches
- Avoid stacking papers, magazines, laundry and dishes, which are common hiding places for these critters
- Wipe down kitchen counters, dining tables, sinks, dish washers, toaster ovens and any other areas crumbs and food can accumulate
- Set out poison baits and traps and call an exterminator if necessary
4. Other cold-weather irritants
“We see a lot of patients this time of year who are triggered by smoke from wood-burning fireplaces and stoves,” Dr. Malone says. “This can worsen allergy symptoms and trigger asthma attacks. Exposure can irritate your eyes, make your nose run and even lead to respiratory illness, like bronchitis.”
Fireplaces that run on natural gas won't cause these problems, but if you can't afford to make the switch or don’t want to part with your wood-burning appliance, the Environmental Protection Agency has some recommendations.
- Burn dry wood that's been seasoned for at least 6 months
- Use manufactured logs made from 100 percent compressed sawdust, only if they're compatible with your appliance
- Keep wood-burning stove and heater doors closed unless loading or stroking fire
- Make sure the room is properly ventilated and have chimneys and fireplaces cleaned and inspected yearly
Your treatment options
If you've done all you can to avoid your allergy triggers and still can't get relief, talk to your doctor about medications you can try.
- Antihistamines, available over-the-counter or by prescription, are sold in capsules, liquids or nasal sprays. "Histamine is the primary chemical that's released in allergic reactions, and causes a lot of the symptoms people have," Dr. Malone says. "Antihistamines block histamine effects."
- Corticosteroids can suppress the immune system and help reduce inflammation. Pills, nasal sprays and short-term injections can helps reduce severe symptoms. "Nasal steroid sprays are probably the most effective medicine you can get over the counter for chronic allergies," Dr. Malone explains. "When they're used right and regularly, they can block the allergic reaction."
- Decongestants help relieve a stuffy nose. These medications are available over-the-counter in pills and nasal sprays, but might not be safe for everyone, including those with high blood pressure, heart problems or an enlarged prostate. Even if you don’t have the above medical condition, speak to a doctor before trying a decongestant to avoid any potential complications.
When medications fail, the next step is allergy shots. Regular injections deliver a dose of the allergen. Each dose increases over time. The goal is to prevent the body from overreacting to the allergen, and if successful, stop allergy symptoms altogether.
Before you experiment with over-the-counter medications, speak with a doctor about which treatments might work for you.