There’s a lot to love about winter — sweater weather, holiday parties, snowy outdoor activities and a break from typical allergies caused by things like pollen in the spring, summer and fall.
Unfortunately for some, this change in seasons may not just rid them of pollen allergies — it also triggers new allergic reactions that come with the cold weather.
Winter allergies, most often caused by mold and dust mites, can heighten when we spend more time indoors, specifically during the winter months. Most of us aren’t spending our afternoons outside in the snow or leaving our screen doors and windows open throughout the winter season. This means indoor allergens can build up with little relief.
Winter allergies vs. seasonal allergies
You may be wondering, can you have allergies in the winter? Yes! Unfortunately, those of us who are plagued with allergies don’t always get a reprieve when the warm weather pollen and ragweed are in hibernation.
The main difference between winter allergies and seasonal allergies is that allergies in winter are more dependent on your lifestyle than they are on your outside environment. In other words, since you’re not going outside as much and plants aren’t blooming in the winter, allergies are triggered by the accumulation of indoor irritants that you’re not as frequently exposed to in other seasons.
Types of winter allergens
When you turn on your furnace to warm up the house, indoor winter allergens become airborne, accelerating your exposure to them and triggering allergens. While these allergens are present all year round, your exposure to them is lower in the warmer seasons.
Dust mites are microscopic bugs that live in household dust. They are close relatives to ticks and spiders, eat skin cells shed by humans and thrive in warm, humid environments like homes. They can be found in anything soft around the house, including blankets, pillows — even children’s stuffed animals.
A fungus that grows inside your home, mold often lurks in dark, damp spaces like basements and bathrooms. Mold is attracted to moist places, and breathing it can cause an allergic reaction for many people spending more time inside in the winter.
Dog and cat allergies are not triggered by pet fur, but rather by a protein found in animal skin cells, saliva, and urine. Your pet’s hair isn’t an allergen itself, but pets can bring in other allergens from outside or around the house on their hair.
Itchy feet in the winter may be a result of dry household environments as well as exposure to irritants when walking around inside barefoot. Itchy feet are sometimes caused by infectious germs like bacteria, fungi, parasites or viruses. Feet don’t have oil glands, so the combination of low humidity, hotter showers, lack of moisture and dry winter air can cause red, itchy skin that peels or cracks.
Winter allergy symptoms
The symptoms of winter allergies are similar to the flu or a cold. However, if those symptoms last more than a week to 10 days, allergies are probably to blame for them. The more prolonged your symptoms are, the more likely it is that they’re related.
With that being said, if your symptoms come with a fever, cough, aches and pains, then it’s more likely a cold or the flu. Airborne allergens will not trigger a change in your body temperature and are much less likely to cause aches or a sore throat. Chest pressure is more likely when you’re sick, but if you have asthma, this could be a symptom of an allergic reaction as well.
Below are some common symptoms:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy eyes
- Scratchy throat
While colds will resolve on their own, allergies may only resolve when the weather changes and you’re able to spend more time outside and less time indoors.
Types of treatment
If you suffer from winter allergies, then you know they can greatly interfere with your day-to-day, especially because the symptoms last longer than they do with the average cold.
Treatment can depend on the severity and symptoms that you’re experiencing. Some of these may include:
- Asthma treatment: If you have asthma and experience severe allergic reactions in the winter, treatments like an inhaler may be beneficial.
- Decongestants: Decongestants may also be used to clear mucus and relieve congestion and swelling.
- For itchy feet: If you have itchy feet in the winter, try adding daily moisturizer and sleeping with socks on overnight to keep lotion in place. Lower the temperature of your bath water, stay hydrated, use a humidifier, gently exfoliate the skin and allow your feet to breathe.
- Immunotherapy: If you’re experiencing allergic reactions over and over again, immunotherapy in the form of allergy shots may be a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider about.
- Medication: Over-the-counter antihistamines, nasal steroids and prescriptions may be used to target certain allergy symptoms.
- Nasal rinses: Whether you prefer using a neti pot to rinse your nasal cavity or use nasal sprays, both of these can help keep your passages clear and reduce the severity of allergy reactions.
While these treatments can provide some symptom relief, certain preventive practices are also important for winter allergy sufferers.
Winter allergies are not entirely preventable. However, if you know you’re sensitive to certain types of allergens, you can take steps to avoid a reaction or reduce the severity of one.
- Combat dust mites: Do this by using a HEPA air filter; washing bedding in hot water (130 degrees Fahrenheit) weekly; and using allergy-proof covers on mattresses, pillows and comforters.
- Control pet allergies: If you don’t have a pet but want one, consider adopting fur-less animals like goldfish. If your life just isn’t complete without a cat or dog, then don’t let it sleep in your bedroom (if you can help it!) and give it a bath at least once a week.
If you’re visiting friends or relatives who have furry friends, take allergy medication beforehand, and bring your own pillow and blanket if you are staying overnight.
- Reduce mold: Wage war on mold by throwing out shower curtains, wallpaper and carpeting that have it, washing showers and sinks with a solution containing 5 percent bleach and detergent, and using a dehumidifier to keep the humidity in your home below 50 percent.
Difference between allergies and common cold
Are you feeling sick or is it allergies? Remember that both can wreak havoc on us in the colder months. Colds are triggered by a virus spread through contact, whereas allergies are triggered by exposure to an irritant that produces a histamine reaction in your body.
If you’re experiencing symptoms like itchiness, sneezing, coughing and congestion for more than a week or two, or they’re affecting your daily quality of life, it’s probably time to call the doctor to confirm allergies and get a longer-term plan in place.
He or she may refer you to an allergist, who can perform a skin test that checks your reaction to specific allergens. When you know what you’re allergic to, you can minimize your exposure and get back to feeling better.
Visit an urgent care for winter allergies
We have teams ready to assist you at any time. Let’s get your allergies under control so that you can go back to enjoying all the cozy perks winter has to offer.
If you need help assessing and treating winter allergies, come see the experts at one of our urgent care locations. You can walk in without an appointment, or save your spot online. We’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.
Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant