As soon as the weather starts to turn chilly, cold and flu season begins — with family, friends, and coworkers sniffling and sneezing all around you, it can be difficult to tell which symptoms amount to “just a cold,” and which point to something more permanent.
If it’s wintertime, and you’re suffering from cold-like symptoms (like a runny nose or sore throat), it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a cold. It’s entirely possible you might be suffering from wintertime allergies.
Allergies are commonly associated with warmer seasons, when plant pollen is plentiful in the air. But, allergens are also abundant during the winter months — even in relatively warmer climates like Southern California. Individuals who suffer from allergies during the spring or summer may experience similar symptoms during the colder months, as well.
Once you understand the common causes of allergies during the winter, it’s easy to figure out how to avoid those particular allergens; and how to treat the more bothersome symptoms.
What Are Allergies?
Allergies are simply caused by the body overreacting to “foreign invaders.” When you have an allergic reaction, this means your body detects generally harmless foreign particles (like pollen), but reacts disproportionately, causing your immune system to attack these particles. Scientists still don’t fully grasp why some innocuous particles — like dust or mold spores — trigger immune system reactions within some people, and not others.
When the immune system reacts, the antibody response is very similar to common cold symptoms: sneezing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, watery or itchy eyes, and so on. Allergic reactions will last for as long as a person is exposed to a particular allergen. In other words, you will suffer from cold-like symptoms until you distance yourself from the substance you’re reacting to.
Over-the-counter medication (like oral tablets, decongestants, and allergy shots) can treat and lessen the symptoms of an allergic reaction — but these cannot cure your allergies.
What Causes Wintertime Allergies?
The most common allergens are weed pollens (sagebrush, pigweed, and goosefoot), mold, animal hair, and dust mites. In California, ragweed, sagebrush, curly blue grass, and box elder are the main culprits when it comes to outdoor-related pollen allergens. During the warmer seasons, plants are usually producing pollen en masse: simply being outside on a spring day with a high pollen count can trigger an allergic reaction.
During the colder winter months, people tend to spend more time indoors. While this means less time exposed to outdoor irritants, it doesn’t mean you avoid allergens altogether. Unfortunately, homes and enclosed spaces are often rich with allergens like dust mites, animal dander, mold, and even leftover pollen from the spring or summer months.
When you spend most days indoors during the brisk winter — especially when you close all the windows, and crank up the heat — you increase your chances of being exposed to indoor allergens. Homes that are rich with dust and lacking proper ventilation can spur very bothersome allergic reactions.
Allergies or a Cold?
Allergy and cold symptoms are extremely similar — so, how can you tell the difference? At the biological level, the two come from different sources: a cold is caused by a virus, while an allergic reaction is caused by a specific irritant (or allergen).
Typically, a person with a cold will begin to feel run down, and then experience the classic symptoms (runny nose, sinus pressure, sore throat) — within a week, the symptoms will subside, and the person will feel better.
If a person suffers from indoor allergies, on the other hand, the reactions can last for much longer — in some cases, depending on the concentration of allergens, a person may experience symptoms for weeks at a time. If your winter cold symptoms last longer than one week, you may well be suffering from allergies. Because we tend to spend much more time indoors during the winter, it becomes difficult to avoid allergens that exist in the home.
It’s important to understand the types of allergens typical to your region during the winter months. Indoor and outdoor allergens are quite different in California, compared to most states. Though ocean breezes rarely carry pollen, offshore winds (such as the strong offshore Santa Ana desert winds) carry ragweed and other pollens — from as far off as Nevada and Arizona — and deposit them across California’s major cities.
Since many homes in California are designed with open-air planning in mind (i.e. lots of windows for soaking up the sun) pollen can travel through open windows, and build up in a home over time. Because temperatures rarely dip into chilly lows in California, mold spores don’t fade away quickly. Dust mites can also sneak into homes that aren’t entirely weatherproof; California doesn’t generally get overly cold or humid, so temperatures remain ideal year-round for mite breeding patterns.
Preventing Wintertime Allergens
Fortunately, fighting wintertime allergens isn’t difficult — it just takes good ventilation and a dedication to cleanliness. Indoor spaces can incur large deposits of plant pollen, dust, and animal dander throughout the year; so constant cleaning is your best weapon for keeping allergies at bay.
For those who suffer from wintertime allergies, aim to dust and vacuum your home weekly. You should also wash your bedding frequently, to prevent a buildup of dust mites. Clean and bleach your sinks, showers and toilets on a weekly basis, to combat mold. If you experience allergic reactions to animal dander, try to keep pets away from the bedroom.
Most importantly, keep your indoor air as clean as you can — during the chilly seasons, most of the air you breathe will be indoor air, so it’s essential to have your HVAC system functioning smoothly all winter. Change your HVAC filters on a monthly basis, or even bi-weekly during the winter, to keep your air free of irritating particles.
Cleaning aside, there are a few other things you can do to fight wintertime allergies. If you experience extreme congestion, try flushing your sinuses with an over-the-counter saline solution — doing this helps remove allergen buildup in the nasal canals. During the day, you can take decongestants or antihistamines, to help lessen your allergy symptoms. Lastly, prescription steroid sprays can be effective at almost completely alleviating allergy symptoms — however, before using any steroids, it’s important to consult your regular physician for advice.
Though wintertime allergies can be extremely annoying, they aren’t impossible to treat or prevent. In fact, with regular household cleaning, it’s entirely possible for a person to remove most of the causes of wintertime allergies from the home. With a little work and preparation, you can effectively treat your wintertime allergies with relative ease — and you no longer have to feel like you’re suffering from “the pseudo flu” for the entire winter season!