Winter Allergies: Everything You Need to Know

Unlike seasonal allergies, indoor allergens trigger winter allergies, also referred to as indoor allergies. These allergens include dust, mold, pet dander, and cockroaches.

Indoor allergens are widespread. About 90% of homes have three or more detectable allergens, and 73% have at least one allergen at elevated levels. Additionally, more than 50 million Americans experience allergies each year.

This article explains the symptoms, causes, and treatments of winter allergies, and whether those sniffles might be allergies or a cold.

A person with brown skin sits in front of a tissue box, blowing their nose

Grace Cary / Getty Images

Symptoms

Winter allergy symptoms often affect the respiratory tract. Therefore, if you have winter allergies, you may experience the following after exposure to an allergen:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Red, itchy, watery eyes
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Itching

People with any respiratory allergy, including winter allergies, are more prone to developing asthma, especially in children. Therefore, limiting your exposure to known allergens is essential. Exposure to allergens may trigger an asthma attack if you already have asthma.

Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe, life-threatening response to an allergen. Symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Blotchy, clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Itching
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rash
  • Weakness

If you notice any signs of anaphylaxis, seek medical attention immediately.


Causes

Dust, mold, pet dander, and cockroach droppings cause winter allergies. 

Dust

People with dust allergies aren’t allergic to dust. They are allergic to dust mites, tiny organisms that feed on dust and moisture. Dust mite allergies are the most common of all indoor allergies.

Dust mites thrive in temperatures over 70 degrees Fahrenheit and high humidity. They are found in fabrics and other soft things, including:

  • Bedding
  • Carpet
  • Curtains
  • Stuffed animals

Since you can’t eliminate dust mites, frequently cleaning is the key to keeping these allergens at bay.

Mold

You can find mold indoors and outdoors. Mold finds its way indoors through open doors and windows, HVAC systems, and leaks in roofs, walls, and pipes. Specific environments encourage mold to thrive, including:

  • Cardboard
  • Carpet
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Drywall
  • Dust 
  • Insulation
  • Paint
  • Paper
  • Upholstery
  • Wallpaper
  • Wood

Keeping mold in check involves keeping humidity low, fixing leaks, and proper ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens.

Pet Dander

People often think pet allergies are due to pet hair, but the allergies result from exposure to pet dander found in pet skin. In addition, proteins in pets’ urine and saliva can also cause allergies in some people. While pet hair isn’t a direct allergen, pets can transport other allergens on their fur, including dust and pollen

Cats are the biggest culprit of pet allergies. Twice as many people are allergic to cats as they are to dogs.

Cockroach Droppings

An allergy to cockroaches is an allergy to its body parts, saliva, and waste. While people often associate cockroaches with dirty living conditions, that is not the case. Cockroaches are well adapted to living with humans, and, as scavengers, they seek out food from human homes.

Cockroaches hide in cracks in homes and tend to emerge at night. Controlling a cockroach allergy involves keeping cockroaches out of your home by sealing cracks, keeping pet food sealed and away, dishes rinsed and cleaned, trapping them, and spraying pesticides.

Cold vs. Allergies

Since colds and allergies have overlapping symptoms, it can be difficult to tell which you might be experiencing, especially in the winter months. But, there are some tell-tale differences.

Colds
  • Caused by virus

  • Comes on gradually

  • Resolves in about a week

  • Does not affect eyes

  • May be accompanied by fever

  • Yellow nasal discharge

Allergies
  • Caused by allergens

  • Comes on suddenly

  • Resolves when allergen is eliminated

  • May include itchy, watery eyes

  • Does not include fever

  • Clear, watery nasal discharge

Treatment

While there is no cure for winter allergies, many treatments can help you manage them. However, you may need to experiment with different medications before you find one that works best.

Nasal Spray

Nasal sprays work by reducing inflammation and blocking histamine to relieve allergy symptoms. Nasal sprays are the most effective allergy treatment, but you must use them consistently to get good results.

Antihistamines

Histamines are chemicals that your body produces in response to exposure to an allergen. It is what produces the allergy symptoms you experience. Antihistamines work by blocking histamine so that you can find relief from allergy symptoms.

Decongestants

Decongestants work to clear congestion, which is a welcome relief when you have winter allergies that include nasal symptoms. They work by thinning mucus membranes to make mucus easier to drain.

Allergy Shots

Allergy shots (immunotherapy) are different from other allergy treatments in that they are not used to manage symptoms. Instead, allergy shots work to build up your tolerance to allergens by injecting small amounts of them at increasing dosages over time. 

The goal of allergy shots is to desensitize you to the point that your allergies bother you significantly less once treatment is complete. 

Home Remedies

In addition to medication, you can do things at home to manage your allergies. The most effective allergy treatment is eliminating exposure to allergens.

There is no cure for winter allergies, but there are some ways to prevent your allergy flare-ups.

Use a Dehumidifier

A dehumidifier can help keep allergens at bay if you have indoor allergies. That’s because significant winter allergens, like dust and mold, thrive in high humidity levels. So dehumidifiers are especially useful in rooms that tend to be damp, like basements. 

Vacuum Regularly

Get in the habit of vacuuming once a week with a vacuum cleaner with a filter made to control allergies and asthma. A good vacuum is essential if you have winter allergies. A poor-quality vacuum can stir up more dust and allergens than it cleans.

In addition to your rugs, be sure to vacuum upholstery. While you clean, wearing a dust mask can help you avoid inhaling the dust you stir up. 

Wash Your Sheets

Wash your bedding every week in hot water and dry them in the dryer on high heat to kill dust mites. Also, covering your mattress and pillows with allergen-resistant covers can keep allergens encased and away from your face. 

Seal Cracks in Windows and Doors

To keep pollen allergens from getting into your home, be sure cracks and crevices are sealed. Sealing cracks in pipes can also help prevent mold while sealing cracks elsewhere can keep cockroaches from entering your home. 

Keep Pets Out of the Bedroom

If you have pet allergies, think hard about having a pet since it can be challenging to manage pet dander. If you have a pet and winter allergies, keep your pet out of your bedroom to limit your allergy symptoms. 

Replacing carpeting with hardwood floors can make pet dander more manageable. Grooming pets frequently can also help. However, you may want to have another person do this task or wear a mask while brushing or bathing your pet. 

Summary

Winter allergies can be frustrating. But, the good news is, once you identify the triggers, you can learn to manage your symptoms. The best way to control allergies is by eliminating exposure to allergens. In addition, many people find relief through OTC or prescription medication or allergy shots.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you be allergic to the cold?

    You can't be allergic to temperature; however, as you retreat indoors in the colder months, you may be exposed to indoor allergens more consistently.

  • When do winter allergies start?

    Winter allergies are also known as indoor allergies. As such, people often experience them year-round. However, as you head indoors for the colder months, they may be more pronounced. So, you may experience them more between November and February.

  • How long do winter allergies usually last?

    Depending on the climate where you live, winter allergies may be short- or long-lived. They may last as long as four or five months in colder climates.

  • Why are my allergies worse in the winter than in the fall?

    Your allergies may be worse in the winter than in the fall. That's because as the weather gets colder and you spend more time indoors, you are exposed to indoor allergens more consistently.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basic facts about mold and dampness

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By Kathi Valeii
As a freelance writer, Kathi has experience writing both reported features and essays for national publications on the topics of healthcare, advocacy, and education. The bulk of her work centers on parenting, education, health, and social justice.