Dealing with Indoor Allergies in Winter

If you’re spending a lot of time indoors, especially as the weather gets cold, it’s important to deal with possible allergens. Dust mites, insect particles, mold, and pet dander are common indoor allergens that can cause problems.

Millions of Americans suffer from indoor allergies, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Symptoms can get worse in the winter when people spend more time indoors.

There are steps you can take to limit exposure and control your indoor allergies. Learn more about how you can deal with your allergies.

Common Indoor Allergens

The most common indoor allergens include:

  • Animal dander.
  • Cockroaches/insect particles.
  • Dust mites.
  • Mold spores.

“The animal danders, if you have pets, and dust mites are going to be the most common,” says Nathaniel Hare, MD, allergy and immunology specialist, UPMC in North Central Pa. “Not everybody has cockroaches, but everybody’s got microscopic insect particles, and some of those may cross-react with cockroaches.”

One less common seasonal allergen is the Asian lady beetle, Dr. Hare says. This insect looks similar to ladybugs but is yellowish or orange in color instead of red.

It can get into your home to escape the cold weather. It secretes liquid from its legs when disturbed. Both that liquid and its particles can cause an allergic reaction for some.

In the spring, summer, and fall, pollen from the outside can get into your home and cause allergy symptoms. But pollen isn’t a typical concern in the winter.

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Symptoms of Indoor Allergies

Indoor allergy symptoms are similar to those of common outdoor allergies, like pollen. Indoor allergens can cause symptoms affecting the ears, eyes, nose, and throat. They also may trigger asthma symptoms.

Common symptoms include:

  • Coughing or sneezing.
  • Ear pressure/popping.
  • Fluid in ears/full feeling.
  • Itchy ears, nose, or throat.
  • Itchy, red, watery, or crusty eyes.
  • Postnasal drip.
  • Puffy eyes.
  • Runny nose.
  • Shortness of breath/trouble breathing.
  • Stuffy nose.
  • Tightness in chest.
  • Wheezing.

If you have any of these symptoms and think you may have an allergy, contact your doctor. A board-certified allergist can diagnose allergies with skin or blood tests.

Limiting Exposure to Common Indoor Allergens

The best way to prevent your allergy symptoms is to limit your exposure to them as much as possible. However, avoiding them entirely is unlikely.

“Exposure is key because it’s keeping the fire going,” Dr. Hare says. “You’re just giving it fuel all the time, but we haven’t developed any kind of mitigation to prevent exposure to dust mites that’s good enough to really make a huge difference.”

The same holds true for other common indoor allergens, Dr. Hare says. But there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure as much as possible.

Dust mites

Dust mites thrive in humid environments, so it’s important to keep the humidity as low as possible. Humidity is generally low in the winter, which can help.

If you use a humidifier, try not to use it all the time — especially in your bedroom. If you do, you may create an environment where dust mites thrive. You also may need to use a dehumidifier if your home’s humidity levels are too high.

“Sometimes, I see people running a humidifier all the time,” Dr. Hare says. “If you run it too much, your indoor humidity level will go up too high, and the dust mites might start multiplying again. Typically, you want your humidity below 40% to 50% in your bedroom, so that’s kind of something to think about.”

There are other steps you can take to limit dust mite exposure, including:

  • Avoiding wall-to-wall carpet, heavy drapes, blinds, and overstuffed furniture — for flooring, choose hardwood or tile. If you want carpeting, choose low-pile carpets or throw rugs. Go with washable curtains or roll-down shades for windows.
  • Encasing pillows and mattresses in dust mite covers.
  • Vacuuming regularly.
  • Washing sheets regularly in hot water and drying them on high heat.

These steps may help limit your exposure, but they’re unlikely to eliminate exposure altogether. “The way I phrase it to my patients now is, I say, you can try it,” Dr. Hare says. “It may take the edge off your symptoms.”

Cockroaches and insect particles

The best way to avoid cockroaches and other insect allergens is through cleaning. Don’t leave food or garbage uncovered and wash plates, glasses, and utensils right away.

Try to keep cockroaches and other insects out by securing areas where they can get in. These can include cracks, windows, and other areas. If you do have an infestation, use traps or contact an exterminator for help.

Mold spores

Mold grows in damp areas and releases spores into the air that can trigger allergies. Steps like fixing leaks and emptying drip pans in your air conditioner and refrigerator can help prevent mold growth. You can also use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to filter mold spores out of the air.

If you do see any visible mold, clean it up as quickly as possible.

Pet dander

Pet allergies can prove especially challenging. Many people are very close with their pets, but that can create a problem if their pets’ presence triggers their allergies.

A HEPA air filter can help clean pet-related allergens in the air. You can also try washing your pets, but Dr. Hare says the effects of this may not last more than two days. If you’re allergic to pet dander, you may want to have pet-free zones in your house, such as your bedroom.

Pet allergies are especially difficult if they trigger asthma symptoms, Dr. Hare says. In that case, you may need to consider other options.

“If you’re having trouble breathing — which, asthma-type stuff can become life-threatening occasionally — I’ll talk to people a little bit more seriously about, hey, maybe you shouldn’t have that pet,” he says.

Treating Indoor Allergies

Indoor allergy treatments depend on your specific symptoms. They can include prescription and over-the-counter medicines such as antihistamines, corticosteroids, decongestants, nasal sprays, eye drops, pills, and more. Talk to your doctor for guidance on specific medicines for your case.

In some cases, you may find you’re a candidate for immunotherapy treatments. This can come in the form of allergy shots or an approved under-the-tongue tablet. Immunotherapy can help reduce or even eliminate some allergy symptoms. Talk to a board-certified allergist to see if you’re a candidate.

At UPMC, our allergy and immunology experts specialize in diagnosing, managing, and treating a wide range of allergies. To find a specialist near you, visit our website.

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, Indoor Allergens. Link

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Dust Mite Allergy. Link

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, How Can I Control Indoor Allergens and Improve Indoor Air Quality? Link

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.