The joys of winter are many, and most of us look forward to this wonderful time of the year. For some people, winter is that dreaded period of sniffling and sneezing, triggered by a variety of winter allergies. Such allergies are more common during the cold months on account of increased exposure to indoor allergens. People sensitive to these allergens can minimize their symptoms by recognizing their triggers and taking preventive measures.
What causes winter allergies?
Winter allergies are caused by indoor allergens which tend to get disturbed and be airborne during winter, especially if you’ve turned on the heater. While these allergens are present throughout the year, exposure to them increases in winter as people tend to spend more time indoor, without proper ventilation.
Common indoor allergens include:
- Dust mites - Dust mites are microorganisms found in soft materials in the house. These include mattresses, blankets, pillows, carpets, curtains, upholstered furniture, and even soft toys.
- Molds - They are fungal organisms that grow in moist places inside the house like bathrooms and kitchens. They spread via airborne spores and induce an allergic reaction when inhaled.
- Animal Dander – Pet dander is the tiny flecks of skin shed by animals that have feathers or fur. Proteins found in animal saliva and faeces can also contribute to allergy.
Cockroach droppings are another common indoor allergen which is usually found in moist, dark areas in the kitchen such as under sinks and kitchen cupboards.
Symptoms of winter allergies
Symptoms of winter allergies can persist for several days. They include:
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy eyes
- Sniffing and sneezing
- Runny nose
- Sore throat, eyes, and nose
- Skin rash
Common cold versus winter allergies
During the winter months, it is difficult to differentiate between a common cold and winter allergy. Though both share common symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, and congestion, the causes differ. Cold is caused by a viral infection and is contagious, while winter allergy is caused by one’s immune response to an irritant or trigger.
Another key difference between cold and winter allergy is the duration of symptoms. The symptoms of a cold usually last a couple of weeks and go away, while allergies remain as long as the person is exposed to allergens.
Tips to minimize exposure to indoor allergens
Here are some tips that can help minimize and manage winter allergies:
- Install humidifiers to balance the dry air caused by the use of heaters. But remember to keep humidity below 50% indoors to reduce dust mites and molds.
- Change the filters in humidifiers regularly as molds and dust mites can grow on the filters.
- Use a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter to trap dust mites and pet dander from the air.
- Use an air purifier to capture allergens, including dust, pet dander, and mold from the indoor air. It also helps people with allergies to breathe better indoors.
- Clean carpets regularly as animal dander and molds can get trapped. Also, the dampness between the carpet and the floor provides an ideal environment for mold and dust mites.
- Regularly clean the hard floors with a damp mop, which helps avoid stirring up dust.
- Avoid dusting or vacuuming if you’re suffering from winter allergies. Have someone else do the cleaning.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. This helps to prevent the release of histamines in the body. Histamines are released in the body as a response to the allergen, causing the typical symptoms of allergy.
Few tips specific to common indoor allergens:
- Avoid using down pillows and comforters as they form a favourable habitat for dust mites.
- Use dustproof covers for pillows and mattresses to help decrease the number of dust mites.
- Wash the bedding using hot water frequently, at least once a week. The heat kills and reduces dust mites in the bedding.
- Wash and dry stuffed toys and keep them off beds.
- Ventilate the house as much as possible and keep it dry.
- Consider using an exhaust fan in the kitchen and bathrooms.
- Fix seepages or any leaks in the walls, roof, or pipes so that there is no moisture content for the molds to grow.
- Immediately wipe down wet surfaces in the kitchen and bathroom to avoid the growth of molds.
- Bathe the pets regularly.
- Keep the pets out of the bedroom and off the furniture.
- Wash hands with soap and water after touching pets.
Treatment for winter allergies
While prevention remains the best treatment for winter allergies, there are a few other options available to ease the allergy symptoms.
- Antihistamines can be taken to reduce sneezing and sniffing. These work by blocking the effects of histamines in the body.
- Decongestants help in clearing the mucus out of the nasal passageways.
- Allergy shots can be used to expose one’s body to gradually increasing levels of the allergen. This provides long-term relief of allergy by making the body get used to allergens.
However, it is important that such treatments be initiated only after consulting your doctor, who will provide the best options to alleviate your allergy symptoms.