The sniffles are common during the winter months, and are not always the result of the common cold or flu. Some people who are sensitive to allergy triggers, such as dust mites and mold, can be just as miserable these months as they are in the spring and summer. Check out some common causes of winter allergies and ways to manage them in this Q&A with Dr. Sherwin Gillman, Emeritus Chief, Division of Allergy and Immunology at CHOC Children’s.
Q: What causes winter allergies?
A: In California, because of our temperate climate, we have things in the air year round that patients in areas of the country where there is frost, for example, don’t have to contend with. This includes mold spores, dust mites, pollens, and trees. Also, when the weather is damp and cooler, many families with outdoor pets tend to bring them in more, resulting in symptoms for those people who are allergic to animals, such as dogs and cats.
Q: What are the symptoms of winter allergies?
A: Some of the symptoms include sneezing, itchy nose and eyes, which are often red, and itchy throat and ears. Coughing and wheezing, as well as exertional limitation, especially if the outdoor air is cold and damp, are common in asthma patients. People with atopic dermatitis (eczema) are often allergic to things in the air, and because the indoor air is heated and dry, it makes their skin dryer and itchier. Patients with allergy to mold often feel worse one to two days after it rains, when the mold spores germinate. Allergies often interfere with getting a good night’s sleep, and with school or work performance.
Q: How are these symptoms different than cold symptoms?
A: People with colds usually have more malaise, body aches, headaches, sore throats, often fevers and usually end up with colored (yellow or green) mucous from their nose or lungs. Many times, they’ve had exposure to friends or family members who are ill with similar symptoms. In the first few days, however, it is often difficult to distinguish between colds and allergies, and the two may coexist. Evidence suggests that allergies may predispose individuals to infections, especially sinusitis, if not controlled.
Q: How can I treat my child’s winter allergies?
A: The most important thing parents can do is to find out what their child is allergic to. This can be done by allergy testing with a special blood test (usually done by their child’s pediatrician) or skin tests, which are usually favored by allergists. Once they have that knowledge, the best treatment is avoidance when possible, such as dust control for those who are allergic to mites, and keeping animals outside or in the garage when animals are the problem. Otherwise, there are excellent safe medications that are currently available to control the symptoms. Getting proper rest and a good diet are also helpful. We also recommend flu shots as another way of keeping an allergic child free from complications of influenza.
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