Most of us associate allergy season with spring or summer. And most of us associate winter with knitted sweaters, snow, and lots of hearty food shared with family. However, when life likes to play a bit of mix ‘n’ match in December and January, what do we end up with? Winter allergies!


Colds vs Allergies

It’d almost be preferable to have a short-term cold that you know will be over within a couple of weeks rather than a winter allergy that’s going to come back every holiday season, wouldn’t it? Though colds and allergies can share some common symptoms, they are very different conditions. Being able to treat your symptoms effectively comes down to understanding what’s actually causing them.

A cold is caused by a virus whereas an allergy is an immune response from your body to an allergen. To support your recovery from a cold, lots of fluids and plenty of rest (and those soft aloe vera tissues that don’t end up feeling like sandpaper on your nose) as your immune system does its good work is the best plan of action. Conversely, managing allergy symptoms is actually about dampening your immune system’s response. For this, doctors will typically recommend antihistamine or steroid medications.

So, you’re sneezing, your nose is somehow both blocked and running at the same time, and there’s currently nowhere else you’d rather be than in bed. Do you have a cold or are you allergic to something?

If you have a fever, it’s definitely not an allergy. Colds are occasionally associated with a fever, but you may more likely have the flu (another type of viral illness more severe than the common cold) – or maybe you have COVID.

If you have watery, itchy eyes (or itchy anything), it’s most likely an allergy, rather than the cold or flu (or COVID).

Other symptoms that may point towards a cold rather than allergy is the presence of general aches and pains, a sore throat, a cough, and mild to moderate chest discomfort. This being said, for some people, their allergies can involve a cough, which can then lead to a bit of a sore throat. In those with severe allergic asthma, chest discomfort can also present during allergic episodes.

You can also consider how long your symptoms are lasting. Because an allergy is a response to a triggering allergen, for as long as you’re exposed to that allergen, you can expect to see allergy symptoms. If your symptoms are from a cold, they should dissipate within two weeks.


What Are the Causes of Winter Allergies?

By your powers of deduction, you’ve come to accept that your symptoms are indeed from winter allergies. But what could you be allergic to? All the grasses and flowers are covered under three feet of snow, right?

Winter allergies are more noticeable due to the extended time we spend indoors during the holiday season. Winter-time allergens aren’t from pollens or ragweed. Instead, they’re more likely to be triggered by:

  • Animal dander
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Airborne dust particles
  • Cockroach poop

If you spend a lot of time in a particularly poorly ventilated space, you’re more likely to suffer worse allergy symptoms.

To manage your allergies, you can consider over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications, such as antihistamine tablets and/or eye drops, decongestants, and steroid nasal sprays. However, as is commonly said, prevention is better than cure. If you can minimize the allergens around your house so you can enjoy your Christmas roast properly, that would be much preferable to popping tablets and spraying steroids up your nose.


De-Allergen Your Living Space

Though you probably have limited control over the allergen situation at Grandma Betty’s house (at least her Christmas roast makes up for it), you can still clean up your own place. The following preventive measures don’t need to wait until you’re approaching the winter months. Keeping your space as clean and allergen-free throughout the year as possible will keep your allergy symptoms to a minimum. Plus, when the festive season rolls around, you can spend your time shopping and wrapping gifts instead of sweeping up cockroach poop. Consider these strategies to reduce the winter allergens around your home.

  • Improve ventilation around the house to limit the growth of mold
  • Keep the humidity in your house below 50%, which can help to control mold and dust mites
  • Discard any fabrics or materials that are growing mold, such as carpets, rugs, or curtains, if they can’t be effectively cleaned
  • Protect your bedding from dust mites with specialized covers for your pillows and mattresses
  • Regularly wash your bedding, rugs, blankets, and upholstery covers to get rid of pet dander and dust mites
  • Vacuum your house regularly, especially if you have indoor pets
  • If you have a cockroach problem, call the exterminator
  • Replace carpets with floorboards, linoleum, or tiles to reduce the areas where mold, dust mites, or pet dander can accumulate

If you’ve taken all possible measures to get rid of the allergens and your nose is still so blocked you can’t smell the gingerbread baking in the oven, it might be time to see a doctor. Your family physician may refer you to an ENT specialist to investigate other potential causes of your nose and sinus problems, or alternatively, to an allergist. It’s not uncommon for ENT doctors and allergists to work together to resolve a patient’s allergy symptoms, particularly in the case of chronic sinusitis.

Allergies at any time of the year can certainly be unpleasant, and even more so when you’re just trying to unwrap a Christmas present without your nose dripping all over it. Talk to your doctor about which treatment would be the most effective for you.