It’s getting chilly out and, just like clockwork, you’re back sniffling again. But before you write off that stuffy nose as just another cold, you may want to consider that the culprit could actually be winter allergies.
Whether it's winter, spring or summer allergies that are pestering you, there are a few easy steps you can take to tame your bothersome symptoms.
But first, what exactly are winter allergies and why do people get them?
What Are Winter Allergies?
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), many allergens can result in allergic rhinitis. Allergic rhinitis occurs when the body's immune system overreacts to a certain substance, causing nasal inflammation, excessive mucus production, congestion and nasal drip. Common symptoms can include a runny or stuffy nose, coughing and sneezing, and an itchy nose, throat, mouth and eyes.
Seasonal allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever, is most often caused by warm-weather allergens like pollen from trees, grasses and weeds. While wintertime typically brings an end to seasonal allergies, allergic rhinitis can also be triggered by indoor allergens like pet dander, dust and mold. This can cause symptoms year-round, in a condition known as perennial allergic rhinitis. Once it starts getting chilly and you settle indoors — with the windows closed and the heat on — your exposure to these indoor allergens can spike.
John Oppenheimer, MD, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, told RxWiki News a little more about winter allergies.
“When considering winter allergens, we are most concerned about dust mites, animal dander and indoor mold,” Dr. Oppenheimer said. “For those lucky enough to live in a warm climate, some ecosystems support growth of pollen such as grass yearlong, which could complicate the cause of symptoms.”
What to Do
So what should you do if you think you might have winter allergies?
Here are some suggestions from the experts, per Columbia University Medical Center and National Jewish Health:
- Keep the humidity in your home below 40 percent to reduce dust mites.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after touching pets.
- Remove wall-to-wall carpet, especially carpet on top of concrete. If you can’t remove the carpets in your home, clean them with a HEPA vacuum to reduce dust mites and pet dander.
- Wash bedding in hot water at least once a week, and avoid down pillows and comforters, which can form a habitat for dust mites.
- Turn on the exhaust fan while showering and cooking to remove excess humidity.
- Install high-efficiency furnace filters, which can capture 30 times more allergens than traditional filters.
- Change the filters in your humidifiers regularly to avoid mold and bacteria growth.
- Regularly mop hard floors to reduce dust.
- Treat your bedroom as an “allergy safe haven” by keeping pets, carpets, rugs and plants out.
- Perform an indoor and outdoor survey of your home every month to look for mold.
- Open windows or doors on warmer days, especially right after cleaning.
There are also many over-the-counter (OTC) products available to help relieve the symptoms of allergies, including antihistamines, nasal steroids and decongestants.
While OTC medications that contain antihistamines like Claritin and Zyrtec can help relieve allergy symptoms, these drugs may not treat the root of the problem (swollen nasal passages). To treat this, you may need a nasal corticosteroid (steroid) spray. For many patients, corticosteroids are the most effective treatment option because they relieve nasal swelling, mucus production and congestion.
You may find symptom relief within a few hours, although it may take several days to notice the full benefit. Fluticasone (brand name Flonase) and triamcinolone (Nasacort) are available without a prescription. Another treatment option is a decongestant, which can relieve nasal congestion and help ease the symptoms of seasonal allergies. Unfortunately, these medications have multiple side effects, and prolonged use can increase nasal inflammation. Speak with your doctor before taking any new medication.
When to See a Doctor
If your symptoms are ongoing, a visit to an allergy specialist might be in order. An allergy specialist can test which allergens are causing your symptoms and develop a treatment plan tailored specifically to you.
“Allergic rhinitis is nothing to sneeze about, as it’s associated with significant reduction in quality of life, learning disabilities as well as work performance impediment,” Dr. Oppenheimer said. “Not to mention potential worsening of asthma and sinus disease. The good news is that there is great therapy available and no one should suffer from allergic rhinitis.”
If you do find out that you have winter allergies, rest assured that you are not alone. According to the ACAAI, nearly 50 million Americans have them, too. In fact, allergies are the fifth leading chronic disease in the US, and the third most common chronic disease among US children.