By William Wood, MD

This time of year can be tough on allergy sufferers, believe it or not. Some people experience the same hay fever symptoms during the winter that others might feel during warmer months, and sometimes these symptoms are just as severe.

Hay fever symptoms occur when the immune system mistakes an airborne allergen for bacteria trying to infect the body. The sneezing, itchy eyes and clear runny nose are a side effect of the body releasing a chemical called histamine in response to that attack. What’s different in the winter is the type of airborne allergen that triggers the response.

Dr. Bill Wood
Dr. Bill Wood

People keep their doors and windows closed for warmth in the winter. Dust mites nestle down in bedding and upholstered furniture. For people with dogs or cats, being inside more often also increases their exposure to pet dander. These all create airborne allergens that can cause hay fever symptoms, just like tree or grass pollen can in the warmer months.

There are a number of ways to reduce indoor allergens, such as buying dust mite proof mattress and pillow encasings. Wash sheets and pillowcases in hot (not warm) water. Don’t allow pets to lay on beds, chairs or sofas. You can also use a HEPA air filter to clean dust from the air.

These simple steps can reduce or eliminate winter allergy symptoms for some people. For others, however, airborne allergies continue to be a nuisance that even over-the-counter medications cannot control. For people with hay fever symptoms this severe, immunotherapy is the only method that can permanently change, and hopefully cure, a person’s allergies. Patients who suffer allergy symptoms year-round should consider immunotherapy, especially if a patient is younger and faces decades of severe hay fever symptoms in the future.

Immunotherapy means intentionally giving a patient controlled, small doses of the substances to which they are allergic, based on their allergy test results. Traditionally, this treatment is given in the form of weekly shots at a healthcare provider’s office. There are now also drops that can be prescribed for at-home use, which the patient places under his or her own tongue every day.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that not every patient who has been told they may have allergies actually does. Allergies rarely cause symptoms like pain or headache. Post-nasal drip, which can also be common during the winter, might be from allergies or a sinus infection, but more often it is caused by stomach reflux. If you can see your post-nasal drip, it’s probably from your nose. If you can only feel it, but never see it, it’s likely caused by reflux.

Trouble breathing through the nose has many allergic and non-allergic causes, especially during winter months when infections occur more frequently. There might also be an anatomical problem, such as a deviated septum. Some patients just experience drying and crusting in their nasal passages. These symptoms can be greatly improved with daily salt water irrigations.

Your healthcare provider can help identify allergies and develop a plan for controlling the symptoms. A blood test at a lab can be useful, but the ideal method is a skin test that takes a couple of hours to perform. Some ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists like me have special training in treating airborne allergies. When a primary care clinician refers a patient to our office, we take their history and conduct an ENT exam. If allergies seem a likely cause of the patient’s symptoms, he or she can schedule a future visit with Leslie Graham, RN, in my office, who has specialized allergy training.

William Wood, MD is a board-certified Otolaryngologist practicing at Southern Vermont Ear, Nose & Throat Associates, a member of the BMH Physician Group. He can be reached at 802-257-8355.

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