Allergies in winter

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Allergies in winter

Allergies in winter

While few of us look forward to cold days and dark nights, for people with asthma and allergy it can be a miserable time. We look at why asthma and allergy can be worse in the colder months and what you can do to tackle common culprits.

Cold and flu viruses

Cold and flu viruses trigger symptoms in 90 per cent of people with asthma. This means people with asthma often find their symptoms are worse in the winter months. Flu is not just a more severe form of a cold - it is a different virus that can cause severe complications. Having the flu jab, which is free on the NHS, will boost your body's defences.

Viruses love skin and household surfaces. So make sure you wipe down surfaces regularly and wash your hands after going to the toilet, being outside, coming in contact with food or if someone coughs or sneezes near you.

Cold air and asthma

When cold air hits your lungs, it triggers a release of histamine, which causes wheezing in people with asthma. If you're one of the many whose asthma is triggered by cold air, make sure you wrap up warm when you go outside. Wearing a scarf over your nose and mouth can help, because it will warm up the air as you breathe in. It's also a good idea to have a couple of puffs of your reliever inhaler before you step outside.

Exercise and asthma

We all need to keep up our fitness routines in winter, but when cold air triggers asthma it's time for outdoor enthusiasts to switch to the gym. Don't forget to warm up for 10 minutes and take a couple of puffs of your reliever inhaler before you start.

Allergy or cold?

Sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, coughing and a tight chest are symptoms we are familiar with from colds. But if morning congestion lasts for weeks or months rather than days, it could be a sign you have allergic rhinitis triggered by mould or mites that linger in dust - and which are at their highest levels in winter. The Royal College of Physicians says three out of four people with year-round congestion may have an allergy.

Don't just rely on medication

While medicines such as antihistamines, inhaled corticosteroids and nasal sprays to thin mucus can ease symptoms, making changes to your environment can make a big difference. Key culprits are cigarette smoke in your house, pets, and old carpets and bedding that trap dust. If symptoms worsen or disrupt your day-to-day life, see your doctor.

House dust mites

Dust mites are spider-like creatures that are invisible to the naked eye. They feed on the skin we shed while we sleep and the microscopic mould that grows on mattresses. They are found in all household dust, but mainly in bedding.

It's not the mites that cause the problem, but their droppings - which are the most common indoor trigger for allergies and asthma. Symptoms are worse between October and March because central heating and double glazing trap in allergens and create a warm, humid environment that is the perfect breeding ground for mites.

Mattresses and bedding

We share our beds with millions of dust mites. They don't bite us, but feed on the skin we shed. This means they live deep down in a mattress. It's impossible to completely get rid of dust mites, but the following can help.

  • Use an airtight synthetic cover over mattresses and pillows.
  • Wash blankets, quilt covers, sheets and pillowcases every week on a hot wash (60C) to kill the mites.
  • Choose bedding carefully. Synthetic fabrics like polyester are less mite-friendly than natural fabrics like cotton or wool.
  • Vacuum your mattress regularly to get rid of mites close to the surface.
  • If you have a fabric headboard, you'll need to vacuum that too.


Carpets can trap dust, while mites love wool, so it can help to replace thick carpets throughout your house with more allergy and asthma friendly alternatives such as lino, vinyl, laminate or wood flooring. These materials are also easier to clean. And make sure any rugs you use are washed regularly by dry cleaning or in a hot wash of 60C to kill the mites.

Stuffed toys

Soft cuddly toys attract dust, so try to keep them out of beds and wash them regularly in a hot wash. You can also pop them in a plastic bag and place in your freezer for 48 hours. This will kill the mites, but you need to then vacuum the toys to remove the dead mites and their droppings.

Sort out clutter

Clearing out clutter and storing books and ornaments in units with doors will keep dust to a minimum. Plus it's easier to clean the outside of cabinets rather than every knick-knack within. For the rest of your furniture, use a damp cloth to keep dust under control.

Soft furnishings

Curtains, throws and cushions may make your house a home, but they all collect dust. Try to choose synthetic materials for cushions and throws, while blinds are a better choice than heavy curtains.


After dust mites, pet dander (flakes of skin and hair) is the next most common indoor allergen. It's not fur that causes the allergy, but proteins from your pet's saliva, sweat and urine that transfer onto it. Symptoms can be worse in winter when pets spend more time inside. Keep your furry friends out of the bedroom and wash or wipe them each week to remove loose dander.

Moulds and fungi

Moulds and mushrooms release microscopic fungal spores that can trigger asthma and allergic rhinitis. Mould thrives in damp, dark places in basements and behind furniture and wallpaper. Both mould and fungal spores are at their worse in the colder months. Mildew is a common mould found in houses.

Indoor air quality

Mould and mites thrive in damp environments. So make full use of extractor fans in bathrooms and kitchens - or think about installing them. To see if humidity is a problem in your home, check the inside of your windows after you wake in the morning. If there is moisture on the panes, there is too much humidity in the air. A dehumidifier can help here.

Out and about

Take extra care not to walk through wooded areas when there's rain or fog, or to disturb piles of leaves. Both can expose you to fungal spores in the air. And if you're going away for the weekend to a country cottage, be aware that vacant holiday homes can have higher levels of mildew.

Christmas trees

It may be the season to be jolly, but your glittering festive tree can trigger asthma and allergy. A live tree can harbour mould, while artificial trees can harbour dust. So wash your tree before you put it up. For live trees, spray with water outside and let dry. Hot, soapy water is best for artificial trees and dusty ornaments and decorations.

Household plants

Keep plants out of the bedroom, because they increase the humidity levels that are much loved by dust mites. Decaying leaves can also stimulate the growth of mould and mildew that can trigger symptoms.

Ditch the ambient smells

Scented candles and incense sticks smell nice, but when they burn they produce microscopic soot that clings to your lungs and causes irritation. This can worsen asthma, while their fragrance can trigger allergy. Instead use natural aromas from baking to scent your house, or try one of the many allergy-friendly air-fresheners on the market.

Keep it clean

Weekly vacuuming of floors, beds and upholstery gets rid of dust, pet hair and dead skin cells, while steam cleaners sanitise and are great for curtains. HEPA filters in vacuum cleaners will help to control airborne allergens such as mould.

Wipe walls and woodwork with a damp cloth, and mop floors. This will prevent dust and mould allergens getting into the air. For this reason don't use brooms or shake out mats and rugs in the house. Take care with ventilation: opening windows can bring in outdoor allergens such as pollen and mould spores.

Paint walls

Mould can thrive under wallpaper, so it's not a great idea to use on your walls if you have allergy or asthma. Instead, paint walls with a washable paint that will withstand regular wiping down with a damp cloth.