Dr. Elena Ubals
Pollen allergy sufferers may experience relief during winter months as most outdoor allergens disappear until spring. But our South Florida winters are mild and brief with tree pollination starting in February and people with seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) sensitive to tree pollen may experience bothersome episodes of recurrent sneezing and runny nose early in the year.
Indoor allergy sufferers, those allergic to house dust mites, dog or cat dander, may experience increased symptoms because we tend to spend more time indoors during winter months. Also, holiday decorations, travel and stress can all present challenges for people with allergies and asthma; for instance, Christmas trees can make some people sneeze or experience shortness of breath. It is unlikely that they are allergic to the tree itself, but the fragrance may be irritating and some trees harbor mold spores that trigger asthma and allergies that cause sneezing, itchy nose or wheezing. Ideally, use an artificial tree but, if you must have a real tree, let it dry in a garage or enclosed room for a week and have a non-allergic person give it a good shake prior to bringing it inside. Be sure to follow directions carefully when spraying artificial snow or flocking. Inhaling these sprays can irritate your lungs and trigger asthma symptoms.
In addition, during winter months, dry indoor air may cause chapped lips, dry skin and irritated sinus passages. The moisture from a humidifier can help dry sinus passages, but for people with indoor allergies, dust and mold from the humidifier may cause problems. The number one indoor allergen is the dust mite which thrives in high humidity. Keep the humidity level in your house between 30-45% if possible. You can monitor the level with a hygrometer.
Food allergies during the holidays is also an important concern. If you have a food allergy, holiday gatherings may be difficult to navigate. Be sure to ask about the ingredients used to make each dish. Be aware of cross-contamination that can occur during preparation. If you do not feel comfortable eating foods prepared by others, bring your own snacks or eat before you arrive. And of course, have your epinephrine auto-injector handy at all times.
Cold weather activities such as cross-country skiing and other winter sports are more likely to cause exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. Symptoms include wheezing, tight chest, cough, shortness of breath and, in rare cases, chest pain which usually begins within 5 to 20 minutes of exercising. Strenuous exercise, particularly in cold air, may cause these symptoms in most asthmatics. Some people with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction do not otherwise have asthma, and people with allergies may also have trouble breathing during exercise. To cope with this condition, the first step is to develop a treatment plan with your physician. Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction may be prevented with controller medications taken regularly or by using medicine before exercise. Once symptoms occur, they can be treated with rescue medications such as albuterol. In addition, warm-ups and cool downs may prevent or lessen symptoms.
People with asthma should receive the yearly influenza vaccine as respiratory infections and viral respiratory infections in particular may exacerbate asthma symptoms. They should also strictly comply with prescribed controller asthma medications as winter months are associated with increased incidence of asthma exacerbations.
People with atopic dermatitis or eczema may also experience winter related flare-ups of eczema. Dry winter air may dry the skin which triggers the itch/scratch cycle typical of atopic dermatitis. People so affected should keep their skin hydrated with daily application of emollient creams immediately after bathing and more frequently as needed. Of interest, some recent studies provide strong support for the benefit of vitamin D supplementation in children with winter-related atopic dermatitis.
Some of information provided in this article has been obtained from the allergy-library from the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. For more information please visit aaaai.org