By Michael Blaiss, MD
ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS about winter is that there’s no pollen in the air. All the leaves have fallen off the trees, and the grass is brown and may even be covered with snow, allowing sufferers of hay fever a reprieve from their nasal symptoms. So, you may be asking, “Why am I having constant sneezing, and my nose is itching and running during the winter months? How can that be?”
Unfortunately, for many people, the winter can be a terrible time for allergies. But since winter is “cold” season, how do you know if your nasal problems are from an allergy or a virus?
Here are some ways to help distinguish whether you have a virus or an allergy:
- Viruses may be associated with fever, while allergies never result in a fever.
- Viruses produce colored mucus from the nose, while allergies cause clear drainage.
- Viruses typically don’t have any eye symptoms, while allergies may produce watery, itchy eyes.
- Viruses may lead to sore throats and body aches, while these are not seen with allergies.
- Viruses are short-lived, usually lasting up to two weeks, while allergies may last throughout the season or longer.
If your symptoms suggest that you are miserable from a winter allergy, what could be the cause? According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, these are some of the most likely culprits:
- House dust mites: These pests are barely visible to the naked eye and grow in carpet, bedding and upholstered furniture. In the winter, they die, and their decomposed body parts and feces can trigger allergy symptoms.
- Animal dander: Your cat or dog can cause year-round allergy symptoms, but these may be more noticeable in the winter when you spend more time indoors.
- Mold spores: Like pets, molds can lead to allergy troubles all year, but especially in the cold, wet winter months. The most common locations to observe mold growth are your bathrooms and basement.
What can you do about these allergy triggers? The first step is avoidance. For house dust mites, removing the carpet from bedroom floor, washing all the bedding with hot water – at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit – removing dust collectors from the bedroom and putting mite-proof encasings on the mattress and box springs can help reduce symptoms. To avoid pet dander, always keep your pet out of your bedroom. Some studies suggest that frequent bathing of your pet is beneficial in keeping dander down to a minimum. Remember, there is no such thing is a “hypoallergenic” cat or dog. Any area where mold is growing needs to be scrubbed thoroughly, and be sure to control any moisture or water source that’s causing mold development. In a basement with mold problems, a dehumidifier can be effective.
Second, medication may be used to minimize your nasal misery. Over-the-counter medications, such as non-sedating antihistamines, like Claritin and Zyrtec, and intranasal corticosteroids, like Flonase and Nasacort, can be beneficial. These treatments don’t cure your allergies and need to be taken regularly to control the nasal symptoms. Depending on the severity of your allergies, these remedies may be enough to improve your quality of life.
What if avoidance and medication don’t work well enough, you’re having side effects from the medication or you’re just tired of using medications all the time? What can you do? If this is the case, it’s time to seek medical help from a board-certified allergist. You’ll probably require allergy testing to determine exactly what’s causing your symptoms. You may find after speaking with your allergist that you’re a candidate for allergen immunotherapy. This is a type of vaccination where you’re given small amounts of what you’re allergic to by a tablet under the tongue (house dust mites) or by injections (pets, molds, house dust mites), over a three- to five-year period. Allergen immunotherapy has been shown not only to reduce symptoms, but also to help get rid of your allergies permanently.