How Women Can Keep Winter Allergies at Bay
The snow is flying, the wind howling, and the temperatures plunging. The bugs are dead, beyond dead, and all the little animals are hiding away in their burrows and nests. The air feels crisp and clear, yet somehow, somewhere, there is something hitching a ride on those invisible airwaves, because once again, you’re sneezing and wiping your itchy eyes.
Despite what you expected—that the tissues would stay safely tucked away into the cupboard until spring pollen started to fly—you’re using up box after box, and you know you don’t have a cold.
What’s going on? Could it be allergies, in this type of weather?
The Difference Between the Common Cold and Winter Allergies
Allergies are common in the warm weather. Pollen flies, and we’re used to needing the tissues and the nasal sprays and the antihistamines to cope. But when winter comes around, we assume we’ll finally get a break from all that.
How disappointing when that doesn’t happen.
You may think it’s a cold at first. I have a friend who did that. She’s in her forties, and she had never experienced allergies before. She initially thought she’d caught a cold from one of her kids, but after a couple weeks of sniffling, she realized it had to be allergies.How can you tell the difference? First, consider how long your symptoms last. The common cold will usually go away within a couple weeks. Allergies tend to stick around longer, or at least as long as you’re in contact with the allergens.
Allergy symptoms tend to come on suddenly after you encounter the allergens, whereas with a cold, you’ll feel symptoms sort of “creeping” up on you as the virus takes hold. A cold may also be accompanied by aches and pains, cough, sore throat, and fatigue, whereas allergies are more likely to be confined to sinus issues along with itchy eyes, though you may have a sore throat as well.
Finally, consider the sinus discharge. With allergies, it’s typically clear and thin. If you have a cold, it is more likely to be yellowish. An itchy nose often points to allergies, as well.
What Causes Winter Allergies?
If you tend to suffer from allergies in the spring, summer, and/or fall, and then you end up sneezing and rubbing your eyes in the winter months, too, it could be that you’re one of the “lucky” women who suffer from allergies year-round.
Although pollen is most responsible for warm-weather allergies, it’s greatly diminished when the temperatures drop. Other triggers, however, are all too happy to take over, and can in fact become more potent in the winter, simply because we spend more time indoors.
As we close the windows, increase insulation, and lock our homes up tight, we reduce air circulation, increasing concentration of indoor pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that indoor air pollution is worse than outdoor, and in the winter months we increase the intensity by reducing air circulation, and spending more time indoors.
That means if you’re allergic to anything in your home, it’s likely to get worse in the winter when your exposure increases. In addition, there are some unique winter allergens that actually increase during the colder months.
Here are five of the most common winter allergy triggers:
- Dust and dust mites: The more you use your furnace and your fireplace in the winter, the more dust you’re going to have. You may have noticed that it seems to accumulate more quickly in the colder months. Plain dust is an allergen for many people, and dust mites can also lurk in bedding, mattresses, carpets, and upholstered furniture.
- Mold: Mold spores can lurk about in a lot of places, but are most common in damp basements and bathrooms, in rotting autumn leaves, in soil (in house plants), under carpets, and behind the walls of the house (if there is moisture accumulated there). There is also such a thing as “snow mold,” which is a type of mold that lives near snow. A blanket of snow on top of the house, for instance, can accommodate the growth of certain types of mold. Damp wood, as well, which you may bring in for your fireplace, can host mold.
- Animal dander: Cats, dogs, birds, and other animals shed dead skin cells, just like we do, creating animal dander. Many people are allergic to it. Cold weather locks us indoors with our pets more often, which can increase your exposure to the dander.
- Pollen: Believe it or not, some trees release pollen during the winter months! One of the most common is the mountain cedar, which pollinates between December and March. Of course if you live in a temperate area where other trees bloom in winter, that may be what’s causing your symptoms as well.
- Smoke and pollution: People love to burn their fireplaces and wood stoves in the winter, but that can create more smoke in the air than you’re used to. Inversions and other weather conditions can trap smoky, polluted air, as well, increasing allergic reactions. If the wind blows, it can stir up all those allergens, increasing your exposure—this may explain why your allergies are worse on windy days. Keep in mind that candles may also contribute to indoor air pollution and allergy symptoms.
How to Reduce Your Exposure to Winter Allergens
Obviously, allergy symptoms aren’t pleasant, and we’d all like to experience fewer of them. To do that, first try to limit your exposure to allergens. Here are some tips to help you do that.
- Dust and vacuum frequently, and make sure you have a HEPA filter in your vacuum to improve air quality. Also, it can help to reduce the knick-knacks, stacks of books, and other dust-collectors in your bedroom.
- Use dust-proof covers on mattresses and pillows, and regularly wash bed linens in hot water.
- If you live in a humid area, or if the humidity is high for an extended period of time and you’re having trouble with mold, consider getting a dehumidifier and using it in key areas where mold grows.
- Fix any plumbing problems or leaks to reduce dampness.
- Open a window on warmer, pleasant days to increase air ventilation.
- Clean moldy surfaces using water and detergent. (Bleach often works best if you manage it safely. Always dilute to about five percent bleach, and use gloves.) Clean sinks, tubs and showers at least once a month.
- Try to make sure wood is dry before bringing it in for the fireplace or wood stove.
- Wash pets frequently, and keep them out of the bedroom and off the furniture. If you are away from your pet for a few days and then return home, your allergies may be worse until you adapt again.
- Consider buying a HEPA air purifier for those rooms you use most in your home, such as your bedroom.
- Wash your curtains.
Treatments to Try for Winter Allergies
While you work to reduce your exposure to allergens, what can you do to reduce your symptoms?
Antihistamines work for many people, but they may cause side effects like fatigue, dry eyes, and dry mouth. Some people also build up a resistance to them after awhile, which means they have to take more of them to get the same effect.
Fortunately, there are other options besides pills. Here are some of the most effective:
- Saline sprays: Winter weather dries out the sinus passages, which can make them more vulnerable to allergens, and may also cause bloody noses. Saline sprays help keep the nasal passages moist, and if you use them before bed at night, they can help clear out allergens that are trapped in your nose. You may wake up feeling much better. You can also use a neti pot for the same purpose—just make sure you don’t use tap water in it. It can be contaminated with microorganisms that you don’t want in your sinuses. Use boiled (and cooled) or distilled water instead.
- Steroid sprays: Recent studies show that these work better for allergy symptoms than oral antihistamines do, and since very little gets into the bloodstream, they are safe for long-term use. Good options include Flonase and Nasonex. Do be patient—they may take hours or even days before they start to work.
- Prescription sprays: If regular over-the-counter sprays don’t work for you, talk to your allergist about potential prescription sprays. There are some antihistamine sprays that may work better for you because they deliver the medication right where it’s needed.
- Herbal remedies: Recent research has indicated that some herbal supplements are very effective for reducing allergy symptoms like sneezing, hay fever, and headaches. The American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society have endorsed the use of butterbur, for example, to reduce the frequency of migraines (which can be triggered by allergens), and some studies also suggest the herb may help reduce hay fever. Nettle leaf and quercetin have both been found in studies to help block the production of histamine, which may help reduce your symptoms.
- Probiotics: You’ve heard of these in yogurt, right? They may help ease digestion, but some studies have also linked them with reduced allergies. They are also present in other fermented foods, including sauerkraut, Kombucha, kefir, and miso soup.
- Allergy shots: If you have suffered from allergies for years and you’re tired of it, allergy shots or drops may be the answer for you. Talk to your allergy doctor. This treatment gradually builds up your tolerance to triggers, so that eventually you are much less reactive to them. (Read more about long-term allergy therapies here.)
“The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality,” EPA, https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/inside-story-guide-indoor-air-quality.