In spring and summer, a runny nose, scratchy throat and cough often signal an allergic reaction to pollen. During the winter, the same symptoms indicate a common cold — or do they?
Freezing outdoor temperatures often keep Pennsylvanians inside, resulting in greater exposure to indoor allergens, followed by chronic congestion and other symptoms. Cold symptoms typically worsen for a few days, settle in for a few more and then go away. Allergy symptoms are more persistent, lingering for longer periods, although they may come and go.
Understanding the culprits is the first step toward minimizing the distress caused by indoor winter allergens.
An allergy is one of the most common chronic diseases, affecting as many as 30 percent of U.S. adults and 40 percent of children, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Scientists don’t understand why some people develop allergies and others don’t. For those who do have an allergy, the body’s immune system views a substance (the allergen) as harmful and overreacts to it. The results are symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, hives or difficulty breathing. Symptoms can be minor or life-threatening.
The most common indoor allergens are molds, mites and animal dander. Although we come into contact with these substances all yearlong, their impact is stronger during cold-weather months when we spend more time indoors with the windows shut and forced-air heating systems circulating allergens.
In addition, winter air is drier than humid summer air, and mechanically-heated air carries even less moisture. This irritates the body’s mucus membranes, so they can’t do as good a job of protecting the body against allergens and viruses.
Holiday time increases exposure
Winter holidays also bring changes in routine that can increase exposure to indoor and other allergens, or make the body more susceptible to them. Here’s how:
▪ Lots of visiting with friends and family means easier transmission of viruses that can irritate membranes and lessen their protection against allergens.
▪ More visiting might also mean more exposure to pets and their dander.
▪ Bringing once-a-year decorations out of storage often stirs up dust and mold spores.
▪ Traveling to warmer climates can expose “snowbirds” to grasses, plants and trees that are seasonal in Pennsylvania, but perennial elsewhere.
▪ Holiday buffets are full of tasty dishes that could contain tree nuts, shellfish and other unexpected allergens.
▪ Sitting by the fireplace is cozy when snow is falling outside, but smoke can irritate nasal passages and lungs.
▪ Natural Christmas trees can carry mold into the family living room, and the strong pine scent can be an irritant.
Steer clear of winter allergens
People who suffer from allergies can take measures to minimize or prevent symptoms during cold-weather months:
▪ Individuals with allergies should be sure to get their flu shots, since flu can diminish the body’s protection against allergens.
▪ They should get immunized against pneumonia, if over age 65 or if they have asthma or other respiratory problems.
▪ Keep indoor air from getting too dry, but don’t humidify so much that mold develops.
▪ Make sure holiday decorations are clean and dry before putting them into storage after the holidays.
▪ Take prescribed allergy medication proactively, rather than waiting for symptoms to appear, which could necessitate stronger medications with greater risk of side effects.
▪ Ask about the ingredients in a holiday dishes before taking a bite.
▪ Mop floors regularly, and clean carpets with a HEPA-filtered vacuum.
▪ Wash bed linens in hot water to kill dust mites.
▪ Change furnace filters every month.
Finally, continue year-round healthy practices of exercise, nutrition and sleep. It’s easy to let good habits slide during holiday celebrations and cold weather. However, maintaining overall good health helps the body defend itself against the effects of colds, flu and seasonal allergies.
Jeffrey Rosch, MD, is an allergist and immunologist with Penn State Medical Group located at Windmere Centre in State College.