Allercy and Asthma Health
The Official Publication of AAN - MA

The Top Winter Allergens and What You Can Do About Them


More than 40 million Americans suffer from allergies year-round. We typically think of allergies being caused by outdoor plants, trees, and pollen, but some allergies become worse in the winter due to indoor causes. Homes can contribute to sickness from winter allergens. For example, forced-air furnaces circulate dust-containing allergens. A HEPA filter on the furnace can help to reduce the amount.

Common symptoms of indoor, winter allergies are runny nose, sneezing, stuffiness, cough, post nasal drip, dark circles under the eyes, and itchy eyes, nose, and throat. The top three entries on the following list of allergens and what to do about them are worse in the winter when there is less ventilation —

Dust mites: Wash sheets, pillowcases, and blankets weekly in hot water (130° F). Bedding specifically designed to repel dust mites is available. Pillow and mattress covers are also available.

Cockroaches: Empty garbage daily and use boric acid powder, as it is toxic to roaches.

Pet dander: Because pets spend more time indoors in the winter, more pet dander may be in the home. Keep pets out of the bedrooms and bathe them weekly if you can.

Mold and mildew: These thrive in wet, humid places like bathrooms and basements. Clean non-carpeted floors regularly with a damp mop to avoid stirring up dust. Remove shoes at the door to prevent spreading outdoor molds and dust indoors.

Humidity: Optimal humidity is between 30-45%. Too much humidity encourages mold and mildew growth and too little humidity can irritate the airways, nose, and throat. Saline nasal spray is available over the counter if nasal passages are too dry.

Damp wood: Cut wood for fireplaces and wood stoves stored inside for any period of time can cause allergies from the mold spores on the wood.

Climate: Many warmer climates don’t get a deep freeze or frost, so the presence of pollen is year-round. This is important for allergen-sensitive individuals living in or traveling to warmer climates in the winter. Also, in frigid weather, place a scarf over your mouth to avoid an exacerbation caused by inhaling cold air.

Indoor plants: Soil in indoor plants can harbor molds and fungus. Overwatering and standing water can increase the risk.

Additional ideas

  • To relieve nasal congestion without medication try a saline solution lavage. Neti pots and similar devices are available at the drugstore, or you can make your own by mixing one teaspoon of non-iodized salt in eight ounces of water in a squirt bottle.
  • Wash hands and face frequently to reduce the number of allergens transferred from your hands to your face. Change your clothes when you come inside if you have been around leaves or wood.
  • Bathe or shower before bed and wash your hair to reduce allergens being transferred to your pillow.
  • Take allergy medication. The best time to take it is BEFORE symptoms occur. Then continue to take it throughout the season.
Sheri Tooley is a board of directors member of the American Association for Respiratory Care from New York, where she currently serves as the respiratory care education supervisor at Rochester Regional Health.
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