Many people think of allergies as seasonal, caused by grass, tree and ragweed pollen. Truth is, seasonal allergies can occur nearly year-round as trees release pollen in the spring, grasses in the summertime, and weeds go to work in the fall. And if you live in a warm climate, you might experience allergies in winter because some plants may not go dormant. For example, people who live in the Southwestern United States — Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico and Missouri — may experience what’s called “cedar fever” if exposed to the Ashe Juniper tree during winter months.
If tree, grass and weed exposure trigger allergies in spring, summer and fall, then what could trigger allergy symptoms in wintertime? Winter allergies are less likely to be caused by outdoor triggers; instead, they are triggered by exposure to allergens inside your home or office.
Can you have allergies in the winter?
In the winter, cold weather and shorter days drive us inside. Our windows are closed, and many homes are built tighter, with better insulation and fewer drafts. This is good for energy savings but can lead to allergy symptoms. In effect, winter seals us into our homes with our allergens, and increased exposure may make symptoms flare.
What causes winter allergies?
There is often not one particular answer. Winter allergies tend to flare up when we spend more time inside. What triggers one person might not pose a problem for another.
There are several common allergens found inside our homes, no matter how often you clean. Common indoor allergy triggers include:
- Pet dander
- Dust mites
- Cockroaches: feces and shells left behind
- Rodents seeking shelter from cold weather bring dander, droppings, urine and parasites that may trigger allergy symptoms
Constant exposure to these allergens causes your body to identify them as invaders. An allergy is an exaggerated response to a substance and is unique to each person. An allergy to dust mites, for instance, tells the immune system to produce antibodies that attach to cells in the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and lungs. As inflammation occurs, there is more mucus, making it harder for the body to rid itself of allergens.
What are common winter allergies?
Dust is everywhere. Dust contains skin flakes and hair from people and pets, tracked-in dirt, clothing fibers, crumbs, and insect parts. Carpets, furniture, window treatments, and bedding are dust catchers. Filters in your HVAC ducts get dirty or clogged, poorly sealed windows allow pollen and dirt in, and vacuuming releases dust into the air.
Dust mites feed on the very things that make up dust, such as skin cells, insect parts and animal dander. They are present in almost every home, lurking in bedding, furniture, and carpets. Their feces contain digestive enzymes that allow them to get energy from their waste, but this enzyme can be a cocktail of allergens for humans.
Mold is also lurking indoors. It thrives in dark, moist places like bathrooms, basements and under sinks. Mold spores float through the air and are found even if conditions aren’t favorable. In the right conditions, they will grow on fabric, paper, wood, glass, and plastic.
Are your pet allergies worse in winter? Many people with allergies keep their pets but find their allergies worsen in winter due to close contact with animals and their dander. Contrary to popular belief, fur is not the cause of allergic reactions. Dander is a protein found in the skin, saliva and urine of any animal with fur or feathers. Pets groom, scratch, and move around, releasing dander that embeds itself in furniture, bedding, and carpets. People are generally more sensitive to cats, but dog allergies might worsen in winter due to their need for heavy winter coats.
Itchy feet? Some people experience symptoms of feet allergy in the winter. Feet are already prone to dryness because they lack oil glands. Combine dry winter air, low humidity, hotter showers and baths, and not moisturizing enough, and your feet can react to winter as an allergy trigger. Symptoms include red, flaky, itchy skin that can peel or crack, uncomfortable on its own. It can also indicate an inflammatory skin disorder called atopic dermatitis (AD) and may be brought on by winter cold and exposure to the triggers already mentioned. Several ways to treat your itchy feet, especially during winter, include:
- Extra moisturizing; use heavy lotion/oil and wear socks overnight
- Bathe with cooler water; avoid stripping skin of natural oils
- Eat healthy fats; may improve your skin’s moisture barrier
- Drink plenty of water for supple skin
- Use a humidifier if dry air is a trigger
- Gently exfoliate feet regularly to rid them of dead skin cells
- Avoid scratching or peeling flaky skin
- Wear comfortable shoes; allow feet to breathe
What are winter allergy symptoms?
If you have seasonal allergies, the symptoms of winter allergies will be very familiar. These 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
Since colds and the flu are common in winter, it can be hard to tell if your symptoms are allergies. If your symptoms continue past the 10-day mark, it is likely allergies — even if you have never had them before. Your doctor may refer you to an allergist for tests and diagnosis.
Are allergies worse in the winter?
Allergies depend on your triggers and your body’s reaction. When your symptoms flare because of pollen, you go indoors and get relief. Winter allergies can seem worse because the triggers are inside your home and workplace, so it’s harder to get away from them.
Dry air heightens allergy symptoms. With the heat running all winter, indoor air dries out your skin and nasal membranes. They get sore or cracked. A secondary infection risk goes up with cracked skin or nosebleeds, which happen more often in the dry winter air.
Winter allergies vs. a cold?
Winter allergies and colds have common symptoms. Colds, however, come from viruses and spread through contact with another person who carries it. Allergies, on the other hand, are triggered from an allergen or irritant and produce a histamine reaction.
The immune system produces a histamine response to defend against allergens by making you sneeze, tear up, or itch. These responses aim to help you expel that allergen from your body. Antihistamines are commonly prescribed for allergies because they soften the body’s response.
Timing is a clue. Colds usually last several days or a week, ending when your body fights off the virus. Allergies last a lot longer because they persist as long as the allergen is around.
How do I get rid of winter allergies?
With some effort and attention, there are many ways to manage winter allergies and limit your exposure to specific triggers.
Keeping your home clean is always a goal, but people with allergies should take extra care. Steps you can take include:
- Dust and vacuum frequently, including under and behind furniture.
- Reduce dust-catching fabric; hard floors instead of carpet, get rid of decorative pillows or throws.
- Use hypoallergenic covers on mattresses and pillows to reduce exposure to dust mites.
- Wash curtains, bedding, and pillows regularly in hot water.
- Use premium air filters in your HVAC system and clean/change often.
- Do not delay calling the exterminator If there is any evidence of infestation (insect or rodent).
- Keep food well-sealed; clean up counters to avoid attracting pests.
- Watch for leaks and check damp places for mold; don’t allow mildew to take root.
- Groom or bathe pets often.
- Wash pet bedding regularly.
- Keep bedrooms free of pets.
- Adjust humidity according to your triggers. Use a humidifier/dehumidifier depending on your needs and avoid extremes in either direction.
- Use an air purifier in addition to your HVAC air filters; keep them clean and free of mold.
- Keep toys clean; most stuffed toys can be washed to reduce dust and dust mites.
If reducing exposure to allergens in your home isn’t enough, there are over-the-counter medications available for allergies:
- Nasal sprays to clear allergens, reduce symptoms and fight inflammation
- Neti pots or nasal irrigation: distilled water flushes allergens away
- Eye drops for allergy symptoms to relieve dry, itchy eyes
- Pain relief to reduce headaches and inflammation
If symptoms intrude on your day-to-day life, if you are wheezing or having trouble breathing, or if allergy treatments aren’t working, talk with your doctor. Ask for strategies to avoid your triggers and manage your symptoms. Discuss which medication is best for you.
If you have undiagnosed allergies, you can take a skin test or blood test to pinpoint your allergy.
Immunotherapy, or allergy shots and tablets, work by building your body’s natural immunity to an allergy by exposing you to controlled amounts of the allergen. Over time, the goal of immunotherapy is to teach your body how to deal with the allergen exposure, reducing symptoms.
Allergy shots are taken by injection. Patients must go to the doctor’s office regularly to receive the injection. Allergy shots are approved for most types of allergens, including mold, pet dander, cockroaches and dust mites.
Allergy tablets are taken under the tongue. Once prescribed, they can be taken at home rather than at the doctor’s office. They are currently only approved for four allergens, and of those, only dust mites are a common winter allergy.