In the winter, too much time spent indoors can lead to allergies you weren’t even aware of. Learn how you can create a “breathe easy” home environment.
By Patrick Dougherty | Edited by Brian Levine
Many people get surprised when they learn that you can get winter allergies. Unfortunately, winter is very much a part of seasonal allergies. Just as we shut out the blustery winds and snowfalls during the winter months, we shut ourselves in with a host of indoor allergens, or substances, that trigger allergic reactions.
Fortunately, with a few simple steps, you can modify your winter home environment to minimize indoor allergens and maximize your comfort throughout the holidays and into the new year.
Step 1: Know what causes allergies in the winter
The most significant and ubiquitous allergens come from pet dander and (unnerving, but true) dust mite body parts and droppings. We’re exposed to these allergens year-round, but they tend to get worse in the winter months when windows are closed and there isn’t much fresh air circulating through the house.
Dust mites: Oftentimes, we do not realize that we have sealed ourselves indoors with millions of microscopic dust mites. These tiny, eight-legged spider relatives typically congregate in mattresses, pillows, upholstery, stuffed animals, and carpeting. Although unnerving, these living dust mites are completely harmless. They do not carry disease nor do they bite or make their homes on humans – but their droppings and body parts are potent indoor allergens.
Pet dander: In the winter months, pet allergies are exacerbated to nearly unbearable levels. Today’s energy-efficient homes are well-sealed against the winter chill – trapping pet allergens as expeditiously as they contain heat. Animal dander is light enough to float on air for extended periods of time and easily adheres to walls, lampshades, drapes and other exposed surfaces. The light, mobile nature of animal dander – combined with the closed-in quality of winter living – form a recipe for allergy disaster.
Step 2: Identify which allergens trigger your symptoms
Allergic reactions (such as rashes, hives, shortness of breath, sinus pain, watery eyes, and itchy or sore throat) can take a toll on both the body and the mind, leaving you feeling tired and aggravated. Visit an allergist or immunologist for allergy tests to isolate the culprit of your symptoms. This will help you focus your home environment modifications where they are needed most.
Step 3: Do the necessary clean-up
Give your bed an overhaul regularly: Wash your comforter/duvet a few times a year and your sheets every week with hot water to help kill allergens. Special mattresses, box springs and pillow encasings are available that create a barrier between your body and the millions of dust mite allergens and pet dander that lurk in your bedding.
Consider a dehumidifier in your bedroom: Dust mites are unequipped to find or drink water, so they absorb moisture from humidity through their joints. When humidity falls below 50%, the little creatures start dying off.
Vacuum at least once a week: Animal dander and dust gets everywhere, so running the vacuum over the floor is simply not enough. Vacuum walls, upholstery, furniture, drapes and the ceiling. For maximum impact, vacuum everything in sight.
Choose the right filter: A standard vacuum could worsen dander levels by sucking it in and spewing it out, thus filling the air with allergens. Using a HEPA-equipped (High Efficiency Particulate Air) vacuum helps suck up 99.97% of particles with a size of 0.3 microns (which, by the way, is really tiny), and is a must-have for all air cleaners, vacuums and filters that are used to control pet dander and dust mites. Thorough HEPA vacuuming, in conjunction with HEPA air cleaners and specialized furnace filters, can minimize allergens in the house; sometimes enough to eliminate symptoms completely.
Try tannic acid: Tannic acid is a natural product found in tea, coffee and oak bark which neutralizes the allergens in dust mite and animal dander. Treating carpets, upholstery, and other allergy hot spots with tannic acid can help reduce symptoms. (Just be sure to spot-test before treatment, as tannic acid can stain.)
Clean on a regular basis: Pet dander and dust will continue to build up, so regular maintenance is necessary. It is advisable (especially during confined winter months) to keep your house as clean as possible.
The security of warmth and shelter is an age-old luxury that comforts us right down to the soul. Don’t let allergies ruin your restful surroundings. With a little elbow grease and intelligent supplementation, you too can enjoy your home when it’s freezing outside – and without the miseries associated with indoor allergens.