The clocks have changed, the days are shorter and the weather colder. We often look forward to the cozy comforts of indoor living. However, for many of us, this shift brings about a less welcome guest: runny nose, watery eyes, and maybe even the occasional urticarial rash.
In summary, winter allergies.
Unlike the pollen-driven allergies of spring and summer, winter allergies are usually triggered by allergens found indoors. If you use our pollen count tracker in the winter, you will see that the pollen count is virtually zero in the winter months.
Indoor allergens however are very prevalent. These indoor aero allergens can vary from higher amounts of dust mites to indoor plant pollen, mold or pet dander that are now trapped inside. Part of the reason for the increase is the closed windows.
In the case of double glazing, this no longer lets even small allergen particles escape. Ultimately this could lead to symptoms like:
- nasal congestion (blocked or runny nose),
- itchy, watery or red eyes eyes, and in some cases,
- skin irritations.
What causes winter allergies?
There are essentially five groups of allergens responsible for the majority of winter allergies.
Dust Mite Allergy
Dust mites are microscopic insects, not visible to the naked eye, that exist all around us. They feed on human skin flakes and can quickly multiply. We tend to find them in high amounts in the winter as we heat our homes more, and these environments become even more inviting for dust mites. We also tend to open our windows less, so we don’t let the warm air out.
And they love that.
They thrive in warm, humid environments, making our beds, carpets, and upholstered furniture their ideal habitats.
The main issue with them is that dust mites can trigger allergic reactions when inhaled or when they come into contact with the skin.
Symptoms triggered by dust mite allergies can include sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and asthma.
Allergy to mold can also cause more problems in the winter, due to us opening the windows less.
Mold loves to grow in damp areas of a home, like kitchens, bathrooms, basements, or attics. These tend to be the areas with the highest amount of humidity due to poor ventilation.
As a reference, any amount of humidity over 60% is considered high. The optimal humidity levels are between 30% and 50%. Anything higher than that can make it more prone to mold forming on the walls, ceilings, around windows, or any other surface really.
Besides increasing humidity, poor ventilation also allows the spores of mold to accumulate.
People allergic to mold may experience coughing, wheezing, throat irritation, nasal congestion, and eye symptoms.
Mold exposure and high humidity can also exacerbate asthma symptoms in both adults and children.
Pet Dander Allergy
Pet dander allergy refers to any allergic reaction to cats, dogs, rodents, birds, or any other animal with fur or feathers that you consider to be a pet.
The dander itself refers to the tiny, even microscopic, flecks of skin shed by these animals. These dander particles can be a significant issue in winter when pets spend more time indoors and heating systems can circulate the dander throughout the home.
The decreased ventilation and high humidity also mean that the dander can more easily accumulate indoors.
Common symptoms of pet dander allergy include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy or watery eyes, urticaria or even more serious respiratory issues.
Chemical Household Irritants
We currently use more indoor chemicals than ever before. Sometimes without even realizing it.
But did you know that common products such as perfumes, scented candles, air fresheners and cleaning products could be exacerbating your allergy symptoms?
The effect is further increased in the winter period as the amount of chemical particles in the room will accumulate due to having your windows closed.
These irritants can cause a range of symptoms, from mild (such as a runny nose or sneezing) to more severe (such as difficulty breathing or even asthma attacks).
Where possible, act for fragrance-free or natural cleaning products and avoid artificial scents in your candles or diffusers.
Other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause allergy symptoms may also be present in carpets or even some of your furniture.
Indoor plants are a common way of improving indoor air quality but with some caveats.
Some plants can still release pollen into the air, while others can harbor mold in their soil. For individuals sensitive to these allergens, indoor plants can trigger allergic reactions, including sneezing, itchy eyes, or skin irritation.
One way to avoid this is to avoid plants that flower and to not overwater them. It’s also a good idea to keep them in a well ventilated area, as this can also help them thrive better.
When caring for indoor plants, also consider the impact of sprays and artificial fertilisers not just on the plants, but also on the indoor environment. These products often contain a variety of chemicals that, while beneficial for plant growth and pest control, can have unintended consequences when used indoors. The lack of ventilation and humidity can make them accumulate on surfaces and persist in the indoor atmosphere. As they are usually chemical-based, they will have the same effects as other chemical household irritants mentioned above.
So now we know about the potential allergens to look out for. But what can we do about it?
Strategies for Managing Winter Allergies
Here are five strategies that may help you improve and better control your winter allergies.
- Regular Vacuuming and Mopping. Frequent dusting and vacuuming can significantly reduce the presence of dust mites and pet dander in your home. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to prevent the further spread of the small allergen particles from inside the vacuum cleaner.
- Control Humidity. Keeping indoor humidity in the healthy range of 30% to 60% can inhibit the growth of dust mites and mold. This has been shown to be the healthiest humidity range in various studies. Dehumidifiers and properly ventilated kitchens and bathrooms can help. Even leaving the window open for 5-10 minutes when cooking or after a shower or bath can make a huge impact. Some thermostats even come with built-in humidity sensors, or you can buy it as stand alone.
- Wash Bedding Weekly. Regular washing of your bedding can kill dust house mites and other allergens. It’s best to use hot water around 60 degrees for maximum efficacy.
- Pet Grooming. It’s a good idea to regularly bathe and groom your pet. Keeping their hair short and clean can help with shedding. And even if they do shed their hair, if they’re washed regularly, there will be less dander on their skin that is going to come off.
- Choose your decor wisely. Curtains, carpets and soft furnishings are the biggest culprits when it comes to house dust mites. Choose them wisely to ensure they are washable and minimize use of upholstered furniture when possible. A solid floor is much easier to clean than a carpet.
Winter allergy testing
If you find that you suffer more from allergy symptoms in the wintertime, it’s a good idea to consider allergy testing. Hopefully, you now have an idea of the common indoor allergens in the cold months. If you’d like to know for sure what you may be allergic to, get in touch with us to discuss your testing options.