Winter Allergies: How Indoor Allergens Can Affect Your Health

Published August 29th, 2021 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley
Medically Reviewed:
Camille Freking

Common Causes | Treating Winter Allergies | Preventing Winter Allergies

Allergy symptoms don’t just happen in the spring. For some people, allergy symptoms can occur year-round, even in the winter. Winter allergies are commonly caused by indoor allergens and are associated with symptoms like nasal congestion, itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, itchy throat, and more.

Common Causes of Winter Allergies

Experiencing allergy symptoms in the fall can be especially frustrating because most people commonly associate seasonal allergies with the blooming of flowers in the spring. However, fall allergies are very common, particularly in people with spring allergies.

Cockroaches

Many people do not realize it, but it is possible to be allergic to cockroaches. The saliva, droppings, and shedding body parts of cockroaches can all function as allergens for people with cockroach allergies, and they can also trigger asthma attacks. 

According to the National Pest Management, an estimated 63 percent of homes in the United States contain cockroach allergens. In urban areas, the percentage of homes contaminated with cockroach allergens is estimated to be between 78 percent and 98 percent.

People experience symptoms of cockroach allergies when the saliva, body parts, or droppings are kicked up into the air, where they can be inhaled.

Mold and Mildew

Mold and mildew are other types of common winter allergens. While many people do not think of mold and mildew as being a problem in the winter, the warm, moist areas in your home are prime breeding grounds for fungi no matter what the temperature is outside.

Mold is commonly found in dark, damp areas of your home, such as under the kitchen sink, inside the bathroom, and in the basement. Wet, damp weather, whether from rain or snow, can exacerbate damp conditions in your home during the winter without the warmer weather to help dry everything out. A burst pipe due to freezing winter weather can easily flood your home or cause a leak that further attracts mold and mildew.

Dust Mites

Many people think they are allergic to dust, but they’re actually allergic to dust mites. As gross as it might sound, these tiny insects are attracted to dust particles and feed on the tiny flakes of human skin that we shed naturally over the course of a day.

No matter how often you shower or how often you dust or sweep your home, it’s nearly impossible to rid your home completely of dust mites. As a result, most people have dust mites somewhere in their home.

Dust mites thrive at temperatures that range from the high 60s to the mid-70s, which are common indoor temperatures, particularly in the winter. With winter air being particularly dry, it is common for people to shed more skin flakes during the winter months than during more humid times of year, which gives the dust mites more fuel.

As a result, dust mite populations may increase in the winter. Additionally, dust and dust mites can gather in heating and ventilation systems throughout the year, only to be circulated throughout the house the first time the heat comes on in the winter or fall.

Pet Dander

Another common cause of winter allergies is pet dander and fur. While many people believe that they are allergic to dog hair or cat hair, the more common cause of pet allergies is pet dander. 

Pet dander is made up of microscopic particles of skin that are naturally shed by animals. Like human skin flakes, pet dander is naturally shed and can easily build up indoors no matter how often you vacuum or clean. The amount of pet dander in a home typically increases beginning in the fall, when animals start to shed their summer coats to prepare for winter.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you are more likely to have pet allergies than people without seasonal allergies. Approximately 40 percent of people with seasonal allergies also have pet allergies. Cats are about twice as likely to cause allergy symptoms as dogs. Additionally, some types of dogs, such as Saint Bernards and bulldogs, are associated with a higher incidence of allergies than other breeds. However, anyone can experience an allergy to any breed of pet.

Treating Winter Allergies

By the winter, you’re ready for your allergy symptoms to be over. However, indoor allergens are present year-round, which means finding relief can be a challenge.

As a result, people who suffer from year-round allergies to indoor allergens may need to take medication in order to keep their symptoms in check. Fortunately, there are lots of different over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs that are designed to treat symptoms of indoor allergens and winter allergies.

Allergy medications for perennial allergies to indoor allergens typically fall into one of three categories when purchased over the counter, including antihistamines, decongestants, and corticosteroids. 

Patients who are looking for quick relief of acute symptoms should consider using antihistamines or decongestants, as these medications are most appropriate for fast-acting treatment and are generally used on a short-term basis.

Corticosteroids may be better for the long-term treatment and prevention of allergy symptoms, as they typically take two to four weeks before providing relief.

Consult a healthcare provider for the best treatment option for you.

  • Antihistamines are some of the best-known over-the-counter allergy treatments and include medications like diphenhydramine (Benadryl). This type of drug helps to treat allergy symptoms by blocking the action of a chemical called histamine, a substance that can lead to inflammation and allergy symptoms. The most common side effect of antihistamines is drowsiness.
  • Decongestants include oral medications like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). These fast-acting medications work by narrowing the blood vessels that line the nasal passages, which decreases congestion and other nasal symptoms. Nasal decongestants work directly in the nasal passages to decrease nasal symptoms. However, nasal decongestants should only be used for no more than three days at a time because they have the potential to cause a rebound effect that makes congestion worse.
  • Corticosteroids include medications like fluticasone (Flonase) and are typically delivered in the form of a nasal spray. Intended for long-term use, corticosteroids may take between two and four weeks to provide maximum benefits but are generally safe for use for an extended period of time. This type of drug works to relieve allergy symptoms by reducing inflammation in the tissues that line the nasal passages.

Preventing Winter Allergies

One of the best ways to minimize your winter allergy symptoms is to avoid exposure to allergens as much as possible. While it can be challenging to eradicate all allergens from your home, there are some simple steps you can take to minimize your exposure.

Cockroaches

The best way to minimize allergens associated with cockroaches is to keep your house as free of food particles as possible. Cockroaches thrive in dark, moist areas near a plentiful food supply, so you’ll most often find them in your kitchen cabinets, under the sink, and behind appliances. Cockroaches search for food and crumbs that are left out for easy access, so make sure to be extra careful about cleaning up after meals.

Mold and Mildew

The wet, damp weather of winter can cause mold and mildew to spread further indoors. Additionally, many people use humidifiers during winter in order to mitigate the drying effects of warm air from a heating system. Consider using a dehumidifier in particularly moist areas, such as bathrooms, basements, and underneath sinks, and check regularly for leaky pipes or faucets, particularly as the temperatures drop.

Dust Mites

The quest to get your home completely free of dust mites is unlikely to end successfully. It’s nearly impossible to eradicate all of the dust mites from your home, and they will return over time. 

However, you can keep your numbers down by cleaning your air vents prior to turning on your heating system for the first use of the season. Dust mites also thrive in bedding, since that is where the greatest concentration of skin flakes is found, so try using dust-proof covers for your mattress and pillows, and regularly wash your bedding in hot water.

Regular vacuuming and dusting are also important. If you have a severe dust mite allergy, it may help to remove carpets and rugs from your home and replace them with tile or hardwood instead.

Pet Dander and Fur

The easiest way to avoid exposure to pet dander and fur is not to keep animals in your home. However, some people with pet allergies may be able to tolerate certain breeds but not others.

To keep your symptoms to a minimum, try to minimize your contact with animals that cause allergy symptoms or restrict your pets to certain parts of your home. It is also helpful to use an air purifier, keep pets off of the furniture, and regularly bathe your animals.

Summary

The most common winter allergens include cockroaches, dust mites, mold and mildew, and pet dander and fur. These allergens are commonly associated with symptoms of allergic rhinitis, such as nasal congestion, sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, itchy throat, and more. Antihistamines, decongestants, and corticosteroids are popular types of over-the-counter medications that can be used to treat allergy symptoms no matter what season it is.

Sources:

Cockroach Allergy - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment | American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology 

Dust Mites | American Lung Association 

Allergic rhinitis | U.S. National Library of Medicine 

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