Winter Allergies: Causes and Treatment Options

Allergy is a way of our bodies overreacting to certain substances in the environment known as hypersensitivity. As a result, our immune system releases antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE), and these antibodies release chemicals that cause the allergic response.

Key takeaways:
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    Most winter allergies are perennial, meaning they occur all year but are worse in the winter months.
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    Some warmer climates have specific allergens in their winter months such as in the Southwestern US.
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    Allergy attacks and allergy flare-ups in the winter are usually easy to distinguish.
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    The main differences between colds or sinus infections and allergies are that allergies usually persist and do not involve person-to-person contact.
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    Allergy prevention includes environmental controls, avoidance, over-the-counter measures, and in some instances, allergy treatment or immunotherapy.

Not everyone is allergic to the same things and allergic responses can vary widely not only among different individuals but even with the same person. It is estimated that at least 50 million people in the United States suffer from allergies.

There are two main parts to our immune system, our most powerful defense mechanism.

The innate immune system is what we are born with. It is made up of a protection system that defends us from a variety of foreign invaders, everything from bacteria and viruses to a speck of dirt in our eyes. The innate immune system matures as we get older and then weakens again as we reach our twilight years. That is why young children and the elderly can be more susceptible to illnesses.

The adaptive immune system is true to its name. It adapts and learns how to respond to whatever we encounter in the world. This is very important so that we build on our past experiences and add to our defenses so that we don’t get sick again or react to the same things as severely the next time we encounter them.

In its purest form, an allergic response is a great example of the adaptive immune system which allows us to combat our responses to things we are allergic to by desensitizing. But the allergic response is a mix of our adaptive and innate immune systems.

Can you get allergies in the winter?

It can depend on how winter is defined. In some places, it is warm all year round and some plants don’t go dormant. A good example is people living in Texas, Oklahoma, or Arizona. In the United States Southwest, people can have “cedar fever” or allergies to Ashe juniper trees during the winter months with hay fever symptoms. This is an example of outdoor winter allergies. But usually, this is not what people think of when they refer to winter allergies

Of course, the more common winter allergies affect people who it is not as warm during the winter months. Most people in more temperate or northern climates are driven to stay indoors with the windows closed and the heat on.

In these cases, allergy sufferers usually have perennial (year-round) allergies resulting from airborne substances such as house dust, dust mites, and pet dander, especially dog allergies. The key is that although many people have perennial allergies, many only notice their symptoms in the winter when there is a greater chance of allergen exposure.

A closed environment in the winter months can enhance our exposure to allergens that we face all year. Aside from dust and dust mites, mold tends to thrive in moist places like under sinks or our bathrooms, or even in our clothes.

Humidity is generally lower as the temperatures drop. The combination of hot showers and dry winter air can elicit dry skin which can lead to atopic dermatitis which is a form of allergy. Moisturizing and keeping ourselves adequately hydrated are the first lines of defense.

What are winter allergy symptoms?

  • Stuffy nose.
  • Nasal drainage, clear watery discharge, and postnasal drip.
  • Nose and throat itchiness.
  • Eustachian tube swelling can lead to earaches and ear infections.
  • Eye itchiness and watering.
  • Allergic shiners or dark circles under the eyes caused by nasal congestion.
  • Coughing.
  • Sneezing.
  • Skin irritation, rashes, dryness, and itching.
  • Morning headaches.
  • Asthma symptoms or triggers: shortness of breath; wheezing.

What causes allergies in winter?

There are ways to limit indoor allergy symptoms during winter months. There are two main strategies to consider. Priority is the prevention of allergy attacks in winter. The next priority is to lessen allergy flare in winter. An allergy attack means having constant symptoms. An allergy flare-up means intermittent severe symptoms. Both go hand in hand.

Some things you can do at home or tips include:

  • Cleaning: dust and vacuum, especially behind furniture or under beds; wash curtains, bedding, pillows, and throw blankets used for watching TV or reading; wash pet bedding and bathe pets to reduce dander; wash toys, particularly stuffed animals, or soft toys.
  • Hardwood floors instead of carpeting.
  • Hypoallergenic covers on pillows, mattresses, or furniture.
  • Synthetic fiber pillows.
  • Change HVAC filters frequently and clean ducts; High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuums and filters.
  • Treating homes with heat-steam.
  • Eliminate any dust-carrying fabrics or items in the house.
  • Keep pets out of areas such as bedrooms where people spend a lot of time.
  • Consider house humidification.
  • Air purifiers.
  • Keep food sealed to prevent insects or other pests.
  • Use bathroom fans or open windows temporarily to tamp down humidity and provide ventilation in basements or other places where moisture can accumulate.

Animal dander

As far as pet allergies, a misconception is that fur causes allergic reactions. Instead, pet dander is the real culprit. Dander is the protein derived from the animal’s skin, saliva, or urine and that is what gets mixed with the fur. As pets roam around the house, their dander gets everywhere including the furniture, carpets, drapery, and even our winter coats as we take the pets outside for a walk.

The best prevention for allergic reactions to pet dander is to avoid contact with the animal or your furniture, carpets, and clothing. Naturally, that is impossible, but brushing your pet or keeping it properly bathed goes a long way. Even washing your hands frequently can reduce the effects of pet dander.

Dust and dust mites

A detailed evaluation of your home and work environments can offer a lot of information regarding your exposure to dust and dust mites. Tiny mold particles can be a component of dust and the allergy can be both to the dust itself and mold or mold spores.

Most allergy sufferers are more sensitive to dust mites than the dust particles themselves. Dust mites love warmth and humidity, especially when it is colder outside. They like to hide in pillows, carpeting, blankets, and on various surfaces. They can become active during cleaning, especially vacuuming.

You can’t see the dust mites, but they can make allergy sufferers feel like they are in the midst of an allergy storm.

Mold

Mold is another name for a type of fungus. Mold spores can be airborne, and we can inhale them, causing allergy symptoms.

Some mold is visible, but mostly it is not. They can harbor in places where there is moisture such as in bathrooms or kitchens.

Cleaning is the best prevention.

Cockroach droppings

The first impression everyone has is: I don’t have cockroaches!

Cockroaches can hide in unsuspecting areas and live in all types of houses or structures. Cockroach droppings can add to dust and mold, making a potent mix that can worsen allergy symptoms. Some people at first don’t have allergies to cockroach dropping but later can develop symptoms.

Are winter allergies the same as cold?

Most people confuse allergies, colds, and sinus infections. And that even includes healthcare providers since there is so much overlap in the signs and symptoms it is often hard to tell what the diagnosis is.

As a rule, colds and sinus infections are caused by a pathogen, usually a virus. That means a person has to have exposure to the pathogen through contact with another person.

Allergies do not pass from one person to another. Our immune system causes hypersensitivity reactions to chemicals or substances not by being around others.

Also, colds usually go away in a few days. Allergies linger.

What are winter allergy remedies?

Antihistamines

These medicines reduce the histamine response and therefore the hypersensitivity reactions. They come in nondrowsy and drowsy formulations.

Nasal sprays

These are usually nasal saline to flush out the nose and sinuses. Antihistamine nasal sprays are another way to introduce antihistamines.

Decongestants

These may cause jitteriness or other symptoms. These will help open the airways, but not directly affect the allergic response itself.

Eye drops

Eye drops for relief of allergy symptoms and dry eye.

Analgesics

These are important since they can offer pain relief, eliminate headaches, and reduce airway inflammation.

Can I prevent winter allergies?

The best prevention includes environmental controls, avoidance of known allergens, and over-the-counter remedies.

When these measures are not enough and the allergy sufferer continues to have symptoms, the next important step is to determine exactly what the person is allergic to and to what extent. This involves allergy testing.

Allergy testing has undertaken a lot of new technological advances beyond skin testing with needles. Some tests are done with no skin punctures at all. Others are done with blood testing.

Allergy immunotherapy may be warranted. This can include traditional allergy shots, but some newer methods include allergy drops, tablets, or even specialized toothpaste for children and teens.

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