Winter Allergies: What's Your Risk?

Think allergies go away in the winter? Think again. Here are the top triggers -- and treatments.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 23, 2008
5 min read

The temperature drops, the wind picks up, and like clockwork you're sniffling and sneezing again. Great, you've got another cold -- or is it winter allergies, instead?

At first blush it may be hard to tell whether your stuffed nose and watery eyes are caused by allergies to irritants like pet dander and dust mites, or by a winter cold. Fortunately, a little time is all it takes to answer the question.

"Colds come, they're there for three, five, seven days, and then they go away," says allergist Steven H. Cohen, MD, associate clinical professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, "but allergy symptoms persist for much longer and may be intermittent."

To tell what's laying you low, it helps to know the differences between cold symptoms and winter allergies, including:

Winter Allergies


* Nasal secretions are watery, clear

* Nasal secretions are discolored

* Itchy eyes and throat

* Chills and body aches

* Symptoms persist for weeks

* Symptoms are usually gone in a week

If it sounds like your snuffling and sneezing could be winter allergies, read on -- there's relief in sight.

It hardly seems fair, but if you're prone to summer allergies, chances are you're at risk for allergies when the weather turns cold, too.

The reason is simple: Many of those warm weather irritants are around all year, like pet dander, mold, and mildew. And once you settle indoors for the chilly holiday season -- the windows closed, the heater on -- your exposure to these allergens spikes, says Asriani Chiu, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and medicine (allergy/immunology), at the College of Wisconsin.

The best way to handle winter allergies is to understand what's triggering them and why. To help you do that, WebMD went to the experts and got their tips on what causes the allergies of winter, and how you can take control.

Most winter allergies are caused by the same inhaled allergens of summer, Chiu tells WebMD. Unfortunately, winter can actually intensify those triggers, including:

  • Pet dander: Because cold weather means pets are indoors more often, your exposure to dander escalates in the winter months, leading to a corresponding surge in symptoms.
  • Mold and mildew: Decaying leaves and other yard waste gives mold and mildew an ideal breeding ground. Shoes and clothes then provide these damp, clingy irritants with an easy way inside.
  • Temperate climates: Milder climates -- where there are few or no frosts or hard freezes -- means the year-round presence of allergens like pollen, year-round symptoms for people living there, or an increase in allergy symptoms for those traveling to warmer climates in the winter.
  • Damp wood: Cut wood stored outside easily becomes a moist haven for mold spores. Bring the wood inside for even brief storage and you've invited in a classic allergy trigger.

What about other woody centerpieces of the season, like Christmas trees and roaring fires? Do these trigger winter allergies, too?

Probably not, Chiu tells WebMD. Wood smoke from a fireplace may aggravate existing symptoms in those susceptible -- not cause them, Chiu says. And it's not the Christmas tree itself that may fire up your winter allergies, but the mold it harbors. Smoke, trees, scented candles, "they're irritants, not allergens per se."

If you find any of these irritate your allergy symptoms, the pros suggest switching to an artificial Christmas tree (kept dust-free), potpourri, even electric fires.

Whether it's summer, spring, or winter allergies stuffing you up, you can do a lot to manage -- or prevent -- allergy symptoms, including:

  • Avoid Allergens. The first and best treatment for winter allergies is to avoid what you're allergic to, says Cohen. For example, stay indoors when the wind is whipping up damp leaves in the yard, and keep indoor allergens to a minimum by mopping, sweeping, and dusting often.
  • Wash Away Allergens. Washing your hands and face frequently reduces the number of allergens you carry -- and spread. When allergy symptoms are intense, take a shower; it removes allergens from your hair and encourages you to change the clothes that allergens may be clinging to. A bonus: The steam of a hot bath or shower may relieve allergy symptoms like sinus congestion.
  • Wash Bedding Often. Most bedrooms are havens for pet dander and dust mites. You can keep these and other allergens down by washing your sheets, pillowcases, and blankets in hot water, suggests Chiu. A weekly wash is great, but twice a month is fine, too.
  • And Get Better Bedding. Look for bedding that's specially designed to be less permeable to allergens like dust mites. You can start your search online with the term "allergy bedding."
  • Try a Saline Solution. Irrigation with saltwater is a great home remedy to relieve the nasal congestion that may be part and parcel of winter allergies. Look for saline at most drugstores, or make your own by mixing in a squirt bottle one teaspoon of non-iodized salt to eight ounces of water.
  • Get More Moisture. When you're blowing your nose all the time and the thermostat is cranked up, it's easy to get dehydrated. Pump up the fluids by carrying around a water bottle, eating more water-rich fruits and veggies, or enjoying hot tea. A side benefit to hot drinks: their steam may reduce nasal congestion.
  • The Air Needs Moisture, Too. It's an indoor balancing act: Too little moisture in the air may irritate nose and throat; too much encourages mold and mildew growth. Costing as little as $5, a hygrometer -- a humidity monitor -- can help you track the moisture in your house and adjust with a humidifier/dehumidifier accordingly. Aim for humidity no lower than 30% and no higher than 50%, suggests Chiu.
  • Take Allergy Medication. Allergy meds can relieve symptoms like itchy eyes and nasal congestion, yet over-the-counter or prescription drugs won't do you much good if you don't use them right. Managing winter allergies is easier if you take medication before symptoms appear, and if you remember that taking more medicine doesn't lead to fewer symptoms. Follow label directions carefully and you should get the relief you crave.

You're not alone with winter allergies. More than 40 million Americans are allergy-prone year-round. If you aren't getting the relief you need with lifestyle changes or over-the-counter medication, it may be time to talk to an allergist.