Seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis, can range from slightly annoying to seriously debilitating.
Understanding how allergies work — and when your allergies flare up — can help you control your symptoms so you don’t feel miserable during allergy season.
While many people experience seasonal allergies during the spring, summer, and fall months when trees, grass, and weeds are pollinating, it’s also possible to experience winter allergies, especially if you’re allergic to something indoors or you live in a region where plants pollinate all year.
No matter when your allergies bother you, a healthcare provider can help you find a treatment that’s effective for you.
In this article, I’ll discuss winter allergy symptoms and common causes of winter allergies.
I’ll also explore how to tell if it’s allergies or a cold and treatments for winter allergies.
Lastly, I’ll explain tips for preventing winter allergies and when to see a doctor.
Winter Allergies Symptoms
When you’re allergic to something in the environment, your body releases chemicals — for example, one called histamine — that create an allergic response to protect you from the allergen.
Different people are allergic to different things, and allergy symptoms can also vary from person to person.
Common symptoms of allergies include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy eyes
- Itchy skin or rash
- Wheezing or difficulty breathing, if you have asthma
In general, allergy symptoms don’t change depending on the season.
It’s possible that dry winter air may make allergies worse, or cause additional symptoms.
For example, someone with winter allergies might experience more itchiness due to dry skin.
It’s also possible for winter allergies to result in dry mucous membranes or nose bleeds.
Common Causes of Winter Allergies
Winter allergies, like spring, summer, and fall allergies, can stem from a number of causes.
In warmer climates, like the southwestern region of the United States, people can experience winter allergies to trees that continue pollinating in the winter.
Commonly, people experience winter allergies due to indoor allergens.
Most of us spend more time indoors during those darker, colder months, which may cause allergy symptoms to increase.
Here are some of the most common causes of winter allergens.
Dust mites are tiny bugs that inhabit carpet, rugs, mattresses, and upholstered furniture.
They also live in house dust throughout the home and feed on dead skin cells.
Many people are allergic to a protein found in dust mite droppings, which can trigger allergy symptoms in the winter.
Animals, especially cats and dogs, have tiny bits of protein called dander in their skin, urine, and saliva.
People with pet dander allergies experience symptoms when they’re around animals or in an environment where pet dander is in the air or on surfaces.
You may not always see it, but mold — a form of fungi — is all around you, both inside and outdoors.
Mold develops and thrives in moist conditions, such as basements or bathrooms.
Some people are allergic to mold “seeds,” called mold spores.
There are several different kinds of mold, and you can be allergic to one and not another.
Cockroach body parts, saliva, and excrement contain a protein many people are allergic to.
If you’re allergic to this protein and you’re exposed to this insect — even a dead one — you could experience winter allergy symptoms.
How to Tell if it’s Allergies or a Cold
Upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold, are more common in the winter months.
If you have bothersome respiratory symptoms, you may be wondering if it’s seasonal allergies or a cold.
Both can cause a runny nose, congestion, cough, and headache, but there are some key distinctions.
If you can’t determine what’s making you feel unwell, consider your symptoms.
Allergies typically don’t cause a fever, while infections — including colds — may result in a fever or chills.
It’s also unlikely that allergies would cause significant aches and pains.
Most people don’t experience itchy eyes or skin with a cold as they would with allergies.
Duration is another key factor.
Colds typically last a week or two, while allergies usually persist until you treat them (as long as you’re exposed to an allergen).
If you’re unsure about whether you have winter allergies or a cold, check in with your doctor.
A medical provider can diagnose you and suggest a treatment plan for whatever’s causing your symptoms.
Treatments for Winter Allergies
While winter allergies can cause uncomfortable symptoms and even interfere with your daily functioning, there are plenty of effective ways to treat them.
Home remedies may improve your allergy symptoms.
If your winter allergies are bothering you, consider the following non-medication treatments.
- Irrigate your sinuses: Flushing your nose with a saline rinse (like using a neti pot) can clear allergens out of your nasal passages, in turn reducing your allergy symptoms.
- Use a humidifier: If your air is dry, adding moisture to the environment with a cool mist humidifier may improve your allergy symptoms. Just be careful to clean your humidifier frequently to avoid mold and mildew, which can make allergies worse. Pay attention, too, to overall allergy levels in your house to avoid mold.
- Try an herbal supplement: A supplement called butterbur, aka Petasites hybridus, has been shown in at least one study to be as effective as antihistamines in improving itchy eyes associated with allergies.
- Smell an essential oil: Smelling an essential oil can promote relaxation, which is always useful if you’re not feeling great. Some oils may actually have therapeutic properties. One study shows lavender oil can prevent mucus cells from enlarging and stave off inflammation, which may also improve winter allergy symptoms.
If the above home remedies don’t improve your allergies, there are several over-the-counter allergy medications available.
- Antihistamines: These over-the-counter medications work by stopping the effects of histamine, the chemical that causes your winter allergy symptoms. Common antihistamines are loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec), or fexofenadine (Allegra). Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can also improve allergy symptoms, but it tends to cause more sleepiness than newer drugs.
- Nasal sprays: Exposure to an allergen, especially through your nasal passages, can cause upper respiratory symptoms. Nasal sprays that contain steroids can fend off inflammation in the nose, making it easier for mucus to drain. Some nasal sprays contain saline, which can help to flush allergens from your sinus passages. Decongestant sprays help with congestion, but they may cause more side effects, including a risk for dependence.
- Eye drops: If your winter allergies cause red, itchy, or dry eyes, eye drops with antihistamines may help. Keep in mind allergy eye drops won’t improve your overall allergy symptoms.
- Immunotherapy: If your allergies don’t go away with other medications, your doctor might suggest immunotherapy. By injecting tiny amounts of allergens into your body, immunotherapy can help desensitize your immune system to them over time. Treatment takes place in an allergist’s office, and it usually lasts a few years.
Tips for Preventing Winter Allergies
If you suffer from winter allergies, first, identify what you’re allergic to.
Keeping a journal of your symptoms can help you identify triggers.
Doing your best to avoid your triggers is the best way to prevent symptoms.
For example, if you’re allergic to pet dander, try not to visit homes where pets live, or if you have pets yourself, try to vacuum more often.
Other ways to prevent winter allergies include:
- Vacuuming or dusting more frequently, especially if you have carpet
- Washing your bedding on a regular basis
- Adding a hypoallergenic cover to your mattress so you aren’t exposed to dust mites
- Using a dehumidifier if you have excess moisture in your home
- Keeping pets out of your room
- Bathing pets frequently
- Using pest control tools to fend off cockroaches
- Purchasing an air purifier
- Keeping rugs out of your bedroom and, if possible, carpeting
- Using a high-efficiency furnace filter
When to See a Doctor
A healthcare provider is your best resource for diagnosing and treating winter allergies.
If you have winter allergy symptoms that aren’t going away with home treatment, or you’re not sure whether you’re allergic to something or you have a cold, make an appointment with a provider.
For people with asthma, allergies can trigger wheezing, cough, and shortness of breath.
If your asthma symptoms worsen due to allergies, your healthcare provider can recommend the best treatment plan for you.
Seek emergency care if you’re having an asthma attack and your usual medication isn’t helping.
You should also call 911 or go to the emergency department if you’re experiencing signs of anaphylaxis, such as:
- Severe shortness of breath
- Loss of consciousness
- Low blood pressure
- Skin rash
- Fast and weak pulse
- Nausea and/or vomiting
If you have an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen) for allergic reactions, give it to yourself as soon as you notice an allergic reaction.
You still need emergency care if the medicine helps your symptoms after you take it.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Allergic Rhinitis. (2022).
Lavender essential oil inhalation suppresses allergic airway inflammation and mucous cell hyperplasia in a murine model of asthma. (2014).
Nasal irrigation as an adjunctive treatment for allergic rhinitis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. (2012).
Review of complementary and alternative medicine in treatment of ocular allergies. (2003).