What causes winter allergies?
Sep 27, 2022 • 8 min
What causes winter allergies?
You often hear that frost and cold weather kill pollen, which is a frequent cause of allergy symptoms. That may be true, but pollen isn’t the only allergy trigger. Because you typically spend more time inside during the cold weather months, you may be exposed to common indoor allergens, including:
- Airborne dust particles
- Dust mites, which collect in bedding, particularly down comforters and pillows, furniture and carpets
- Animal dander (pet’s skin flakes that carry proteins), which can get inside many indoor surfaces, including beds, carpeting and upholstery
- Mold, which thrives in dark, moist areas like bathrooms, basements and beneath sinks
- Cockroach droppings, which also collect in moist areas, such as under sinks or behind appliances, as damp weather sends roaches indoors
Much like the unpleasant symptoms that accompany seasonal allergies during the spring, cold weather allergies can cause similar discomfort, including symptoms such as:
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Itchy, watery puffy eyes
- Scratchy, itchy throat
- Ear itching
- Dry cough
- Skin rash
Sometimes it can be tough to tell if you have a cold or winter allergies. Typically, a cold will resolve within a week to 10 days. Cold weather allergies can last longer, sometimes continuing for several weeks to months. You may also have a fever, as well as aches and pains with a cold, which aren’t typical with winter allergies.
If you’re suffering from cold weather allergies, you’re probably looking for a way to find relief and feel better. The following allergy treatment options may help ease your winter allergy symptoms:
- Antihistamines. Our bodies produce histamine as part of the immune response when exposed to allergens. Histamine release can make you sneeze and give you watery eyes or a runny nose. An oral antihistamine reduces allergy symptoms by blocking histamine from the body’s cells.
- Decongestants. Oral decongestant agents clear up stuffy noses and can be purchased over the counter. They are not recommended for use among children under four or pregnant women, and only used with caution among older adults and those with chronic illness. If in doubt, check with your provider.
- Saline nasal sprays. This saltwater spray is available over the counter. It’s a natural remedy that works by moistening your otherwise dry nasal passages. Saline sprays may also loosen congestion and mucus if your nose is stuffy. Because saline nasal sprays don’t contain medication, you can use these as frequently as you like.
- Steroid nasal sprays. There are over-the-counter and prescription steroid nasal sprays. These sprays are effective at reducing inflammation in the nasal passages and only a very small amount enters the blood stream. Possible side effects can include headaches and nosebleeds.
- Eye drops. Some people find relief from itchy eyes with plain saline eye drops; however, over-the-counter and prescription eye drops that contain antihistamines, decongestants or combinations of these are available. These eye drops will not help eye infections.
- Allergy shots. If allergies are moderate to severe, an allergist can provide a series of injections to desensitize those that suffer from allergies from their specific allergen. Small amounts of the allergen(s) a person is sensitive to are injected into the skin in increasing doses, causing the body to develop a tolerance to the allergen until the individual is no longer sensitive to it. Allergy shots are administered in a healthcare provider’s office under their supervision in case an allergic reaction occurs.
- Soup, tea and warm liquids. Winter is the perfect season for soups and warm liquids, which can help soothe an itchy or scratchy throat and open up nasal passages.
Ways to prevent cold weather allergies
In addition to treating your winter allergy symptoms, you also want to rid your indoor environment of these allergens. By getting to the source and eliminating it, you may be able to prevent your allergies from popping up or worsening.
The following are ways to minimize winter allergens:
- Use a dehumidifier. Make sure your indoor humidity level is below 50% to decrease dust mites. Clean your dehumidifier often, as it collects mold and bacteria.
- Wash bedding in hot water. Clean your sheets and bedding weekly by washing them in water that's at least 130° F. This will also reduce dust mites.
- Keep areas dry. Minimize mold by wiping down wet surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens. Clean using products that specifically target mold.
- Clean your home regularly. Don’t give dust a chance to pile up. Wipe surfaces down with a wet cloth to prevent it from getting into the air as you clean.
- Bathe pets regularly. While it’s hard to minimize contact with your pets, keeping them clean and off your furnishings can reduce the amount of pet dander in your environment.
- Remove carpeting if possible. Carpet and rugs are ideal hiding spots for pet dander, dust mites and mold, so it’s a good idea to remove them where you can. If this isn’t an option, be sure to vacuum it regularly.
If you’ve tried removing allergens from your home and have attempted to treat your symptoms but don’t feel better, talk with your healthcare provider to rule out any other issues.
Clinically reviewed and updated by Nancy Kupka, PhD, RN, March 2022.