The dark, cold days of winter offer a ray of sunshine for many people with allergies: A frozen earth means temporary relief from sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes.
However, other allergy sufferers find no respite in winter. In fact, the season can make their allergy symptoms worse.
To grasp why this happens, you need to understand how allergies work, says Dr. Pamela Georgeson, an allergist with the Kenwood Allergy and Asthma Center in Chesterfield Township, Michigan.
"There are two types of allergies," she says. "The first is seasonal."
Seasonal allergies typically emerge in the spring, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the country. First, trees bud and leaf in March through May. Soon after, grasses, weeds and ragweed also cause allergies to fire up.
Perennial allergies are different. They exist year-round and are primarily tied to things inside the house, including:
- A protein in pet dander, saliva and urine can trigger allergies.
- Dust mites. The remains and waste of dust mites – found in mattresses and bedding – are potent allergens.
- Indoor mold. Mold is most likely in damp and humid environments. It's more prevalent in summer, but can trigger allergy symptoms at any time of year.
Triggers for winter allergies sometimes come from unexpected sources.
"A big one is people who have live Christmas trees," Georgeson says. "They are cut down and harvested at this time of year, September and October, then stored. They harbor mold and can affect people who have mold allergies."
In addition, because people spend more time indoors during the winter, they may be exposed to their allergens on a more continuous basis than during warmer months.
Do you have allergies, or are you sick?
Winter is also the season of colds and the flu. It sometimes can be difficult to distinguish between these illnesses and allergies.
However, there are some telltale signs that you have cold or flu, says Dr. Alan Goldsobel, an allergist-immunologist with Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northern California.
"The biggest difference is the presence of fever with infections," he says. A fever is never associated with allergies, he adds.
Also the mucus associated with infection is discolored. "The mucus associated with allergies is clear," Goldsobel says.
In addition to fever and discolored drainage, colds and flu might trigger muscle aches, Georgeson says. These illnesses also tend to last from a week to two weeks before disappearing.
"With allergies, you're not going to get a low-grade fever, you're not going to have muscle aches, and it's going to be ongoing," she says.
Fighting back against winter allergies
The first step in combatting wintertime allergies is to try to avoid them.
"Keep the environment as controlled as possible," Goldsobel says. That means taking measures to reduce dust and mold in your home.
For example, Georgeson says she urges people who have asthma and mold allergies to opt for artificial Christmas trees rather than the real deal.
"We recommend avoidance as much as possible," she says.
Attaching an air purifier with a HEPA filter to your furnace also can keep allergens from circulating through the air, she says. Portable air purifiers also are available.
Other tips for taming wintertime allergies include:
- Wash your bedding in hot water each week
- Use covers on mattresses, pillows, and comforters that deter dust mites
- Clean and disinfect areas prone to mold, such as bathrooms
If avoidance doesn't alleviate allergy symptoms, the next step is to see your doctor. You might be put on an allergy medication.
If that fails to work, allergy injections might be recommended. In this treatment, you are gradually exposed to larger doses of an allergen until your body becomes more tolerant of it.