While pollen levels take a dip during winter, other allergens can make an allergy sufferer miserable.
Common winter allergens include mold and mildew, dust mites and animal dander — all things likely to be found indoors. With houses shut up tight for winter, the colder months often mean living in a sealed environment full of concentrated allergens.
Furnaces can blow around dust, mold and even insect parts trapped in their filters and vents. Pets that might spend time outdoors during warmer weather are often indoors with their humans when temperatures drop. Damp firewood can carry mold spores inside.
Signs of winter allergies are similar to those in other seasons. Coughing, dark circles under the eyes, itchy eyes and nose, runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes could all indicate an allergic reaction.
Allergies can be differentiated from a cold by duration and whether symptoms include fever and chills. A cold probably will disappear in several days, while allergies will continue as long as the allergen is present; a cold often will cause fever and chills, allergies will not.
So, what can a person with winter allergies do? First, consider an evaluation by a physician who is a qualified allergist. An allergist can conduct testing to determine precisely which allergens are triggering symptoms. Once it is determined which allergens are triggering the problems, treatment can begin.
Environmental therapy for allergies simply means removing the offending allergen from the person's environment.
Frequent vacuuming, dusting, washing bedding in hot water, and cleaning can reduce the effect of dust mites. Frequently changing a furnace filter with a model designed for allergy sufferers can reduce the circulation of allergies by the furnace.
Animal dander can be controlled through frequent bathing of pets, HEPA filtering and limiting pets' access to certain areas of the house (for example, making bedrooms off-limits). Mildew and mold can be controlled through cleaning and dehumidifying affected areas.
Medically, allergy sufferers might find relief through over-the-counter or prescription medications such as nasal corticosteroid sprays, antihistamines and decongestants.
Those with severe allergies or allergies uncontrolled on medicines also might need to take regular allergy shots — injections formulated just for that person to combat their particular allergies.
An allergist can help each allergy sufferer determine the best course to reduce the effect of winter allergies. It's important to treat allergies; left unchecked, they could contribute to more serious respiratory problems or repeated sinus infections.
Dr. Beth Miller is the director of the UK HealthCare Asthma, Allergy and Sinus Clinic.