Why Do My Allergies Get Worse In The Winter?

Even though ice, snow and freezing temperatures bring an end to pollen, many people still suffer from winter allergies, primarily due to more time spent indoors. In fact, the most common allergens—house dust mites, animal dander, cockroach droppings, fabric fiber, bacteria and forced-air furnaces circulating airborne dust—are actually worse in winter when there is less ventilation. For allergy sufferers, the old saying “Home is where the heart is” could be “Home is where the allergens are.”

Winter symptoms similar to spring/summer/fall ones

Although specific data is hard to come by, I would estimate that roughly 5-20% of Americans suffer from some form of winter allergy, based on the number of patients I see in my Westchester Health practice.

James Pollowitz, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI

The symptoms of winter allergies are fairly identical to those of spring, summer and fall:

  • sneezing
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • coughing
  • postnasal drip
  • itchy eyes, nose and throat

The main triggers of winter allergies

Most winter allergies are caused by the same allergens of other seasons but winter can actually intensify those triggers, especially:

  1. Pet dander: Because cold weather usually causes pets to be indoors more often, exposure to dander escalates in the winter months, leading to a corresponding increase in symptoms.
  2. Mold and mildew: Decaying leaves and other yard waste gives mold and mildew an ideal breeding ground. Shoes and clothes then provide these damp, clingy irritants with an easy way inside.
  3. Temperate climates: Milder climates where there are few frosts or hard freezes means that allergens like pollen are present all year round. In addition, people with allergies often experience a spike in symptoms when they visit warmer climates in winter.
  4. Damp wood: Cut wood stored outside easily becomes a moist haven for mold spores. When this wood is brought inside, it easily becomes an allergy trigger.
  5. Indoor heat: When people turn up the heat, it makes the indoor air even drier which leads to dry noses, which increases nosebleeds and dry, cracking skin, which in turn raises infection risk of nasal passages which are already inflamed from allergies. Nasal saline sprays and rinses lower the risk of contracting a secondary viral infection.

Things you can do at home to tame winter allergies

  1. Avoid allergens. The best treatment for winter allergies is to avoid what you’re allergic to. For example, stay indoors when the wind is whipping up damp leaves in the yard. Keep indoor allergens to a minimum by mopping, sweeping and dusting often.
  2. Bathe often. Frequently washing your hands and face reduces the number of allergens you carry and spread. When allergy symptoms are really bothering you, take a shower and change your clothes. Added bonus: the steam of a hot bath or shower may relieve allergy symptoms like sinus congestion.
  3. Wash your bedding often. Most bedrooms are havens for pet dander and dust mites. You can keep these and other allergens at a minimum by washing your sheets, pillowcases and blankets in hot water, every week if possible, to kill dust mites. Also, use hypoallergenic cases for mattresses and pillows to keep dust mites trapped.
  4. Look for allergy-reducing bedding that’s specially designed to be less permeable to allergens like dust mites.
  5. Use a nasal saline solution. Irrigation with saltwater is a great home remedy to relieve the nasal congestion that comes with winter allergies.
  6. Drink more water. When you’re blowing your nose all the time and the thermostat is cranked up, it’s easy to get dehydrated. Keep up your fluids by drinking lots of water, eating more water-rich fruits and vegetables, and if you like, drinking hot tea. A benefit to hot drinks: the steam may reduce nasal congestion.
  7. Moisturize the air around you. Too little moisture in the air in your home or office may irritate your nose and throat—too much encourages mold and mildew growth. A humidity monitor can help you track the moisture in the air and a humidifier or dehumidifier can adjust it, accordingly.
  8. Take allergy medication. OTC allergy medicine can relieve symptoms like itchy eyes and nasal congestion. Note: Managing winter allergies is easier if you take medication before symptoms appear.
  9. Avoid wall-to-wall carpeting, which provides a favorable environment for dust mites. Use area rugs instead.
  10. Clean, dust and vacuum regularly, using a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  11. To minimize dander, bathe pets once a week and keep them out of the bedrooms of family members who have allergies.

Treatments for your symptoms

Although many of my patients flock to over-the-counter medications, some of them can do more harm than good. A lot of people don’t really understand how to match their symptoms to the product and end up taking the wrong ones.

For example, some OTC allergy medications contain decongestants like pseudoephedrine which can raise a user’s heart rate. Likewise, the active ingredient in the antihistamine Benadryl (diphenhydramine) causes some tissues to dry out and promotes urinary retention. If you have prostate problems and have trouble urinating, this can make your condition worse.

Better options are decongestants that contain loratadine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec), two drugs that moved from prescription to OTC status in recent years. In addition, prescription steroid nasal sprays tend to be more effective than antihistamine tablets, though individual responses vary and the two types of drugs are often used in combination.

Suffering from winter allergies? Come see us.

If you’re experiencing any of the allergy symptoms discussed above, or want to know how to better manage your allergies, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health allergy/immunology specialists. He/she will determine the best course of treatment and/or medication and order any necessary tests so that you’ll soon be able to enjoy this wonderful winter season. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By James Pollowitz, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI, an allergy and immunology specialist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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