When the winter chills begin and cold noses run, most think to blame a cold rather than allergies, but the latter is more common than you’d think. Understanding seasonal and indoor allergies can help you identify the true cause of your symptoms so you can find the most relief. Below are some strategies for tracking your allergy symptoms that may help you pinpoint the source of your suffering.
Understand What Causes Allergies
Your immune system works to protect your body from diseases, viruses and infections. But for the more than 50 million Americans, their immune system mistakes harmless substances such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, certain foods, mold and insect stings as a dangerous intruder. An allergic reaction occurs when your body is exposed to one of these harmless substances, known as an allergen, and your immune system overreacts.
In order to fight off the intruder, your immune system releases antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE), which causes your cells to release histamine. Histamine can increase your mucus production and cause swelling and itching; this is what causes your allergy symptoms.
Know Your Winter Allergy Symptoms
Most of us are familiar with the itchy eyes, sinus pressure and sneezing associated with an allergy attack, but there are other symptoms you may not be attributing to your allergies. These include:
- Tight chest
- Feeling weak or faint
- Hives (small bumps that look like bug bites)
- Itchy, dry or red skin patches
- Odd taste in mouth
- Stomach pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Swollen lips, tongue or throat
- Trouble swallowing
One type of allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, is life-threatening. It affects several areas of the body at once, oftentimes the skin, nose, mouth and gut. It can also cause trouble breathing and a drop in blood pressure. If you have any of these symptoms, call 911. If you have an EpiPen®, use it also.
Identify Seasonal Allergy Patterns
Some allergens – like pollen – occur seasonally, making them easier to pinpoint. However, some allergens – like dust mites and mold – occur year-round.
Pay attention to what is around you when you have symptoms. If you feel fine in your home office but suddenly experience symptoms after doing laundry or taking a bath, there may be hidden mold in those areas triggering symptoms. If you function just fine at home with your cat but have symptoms at your friend’s house who owns a dog, you’re probably allergic to dog dander.
What Causes Winter Allergies?
Pollen Season Lasting Longer
“Milder winters are continuing to affect spring allergies. Trees are able to pollinate earlier and for longer periods, extending the allergy season by several weeks,” explained Kenneth Mendez, president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Many experts have said that across the nation, this year’s winter and early spring have been warmer than average, in large part due to rising temperatures worldwide.
Pollen season in Charleston starts as early as February, with trees releasing their pollen until late spring (end of June). Then grass pollens hit in the late spring/early summer, and finally, weed pollen takes hold in the fall and may last until November. Most allergy sufferers report May to be the worst month for allergies due to the overlap of grass pollen peaking while tree pollen is also high. You can find and track local pollen counts on many weather reports during pollen season or online, and these numbers can help you identify when pollen may be to blame and when to take extra care outside.
When pollen doesn’t seem to be the culprit, it’s time to look at indoor allergens, especially because cold weather tends to drive people indoors with battened hatches. Unfortunately, that also means they’re trapping allergens inside with them. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the most common indoor allergens causing your winter symptoms are:
- Pet dander. Note that it’s the dead skin flakes, not the fur/hair of household pets, that triggers allergic reactions.
- Dust mites. Dust is all around you, and so are the microscopic bugs that feast on it. Dust mites thrive most in your bedding, carpeting and upholstered furniture.
- Indoor mold. Mold spores are inescapable, but for some, they are a major source of allergy symptoms. Indoor mold is especially common in bathrooms, kitchens, utility rooms and basements.
- Cockroach droppings. It’s a common misconception that cockroaches are a sign of unhygienic or unsanitary conditions; they can actually live anywhere.
Preventing Traditional Winter Allergies
The biggest issue with winter allergies is that winter conditions can exacerbate allergic reactions and turn them into something worse. “People are turning up their heaters, which makes the indoor air even drier,” explained Douglas H. Jones, M.D., of Rocky Mountain Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Group in Utah, “and that leads to dry noses, which increases the incidence of nosebleeds and skin cracking.” All this can boost risk of infection.
While it’s impossible to eliminate allergens entirely, there are strategies for reducing exposure to them in your home.
- To minimize dander: Bathe pets once a week, keep them out of the bedrooms of those with allergies and don’t let them on the furniture.
- To minimize dust mites: Clean, dust and vacuum regularly using a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Wash sheets weekly in hot water and use hypoallergenic cases for pillows and mattresses. Avoid wall-to-wall carpeting and heavy drapes.
- To prevent mold: Maintain a humidity level of under 50%. Check frequently for leaky pipes and ensure your bathroom, kitchen, utility room and basement are well-ventilated.
- To prevent cockroaches: Keep food well-contained and be vigilant about cleaning crumbs and spills.
Preventing Pollen in the Home
While it may not be possible to avoid pollen once you step outside, there are many strategies for limiting pollen inside your home.
- Try to limit outdoor exposure during times when pollen counts are high.
- Install air filters in your home, such as high-efficiency particulate absorbance (HEPA) filters.
- Clean your home regularly. Dusting, vacuuming and washing bedding in hot water is especially important.
- When you spend time outdoors, take a shower and change your clothes as soon as you come back inside.
- Start a daily allergy medication right away, even if you’re not yet experiencing symptoms.
Finding Relief From Winter Allergies
Most people’s allergies can be treated with over-the-counter solutions. OTC oral antihistamines are usually the first line of defense against allergy symptoms, which can be supplemented with steroid nasal sprays and eyedrops found at the drug store.
Unfortunately for many, this is not enough to keep allergy symptoms under control. Charleston ENT & Allergy offers immunotherapy for long-term relief from allergy symptoms.
Immunotherapy can be administered via shots or oral drops. It works by exposing your immune system to small amounts of allergens so that your body builds up a tolerance over time. Immunotherapy requires three to five years of commitment.
It is helpful to keep a log of what your symptoms are and what environments you experience them in. Once you identify patterns, it is easier to pinpoint the source. For more information or to schedule an allergy test, call the experts at Charleston ENT & Allergy today.