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In a Heartbeat

In a Heartbeat: Understanding, fighting winter allergies

| Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

It may be ice cold out there, but look at the positive: the pollens, molds and other warm weather irritants have disappeared. So why are you still suffering from allergy symptoms if you don't have a cold? We asked Allison Freeman, an allergist with Allegheny Health Network, for an explanation.

How serious can winter allergies be for some?

People with primarily seasonal allergies can have significant symptoms, but the body gets a chance to heal between seasons. With perennial allergies, though, often that doesn't happen. So nasal congestion becomes chronic, which can lead to problems sleeping, breathing, sinus infections and flaring of asthma.

What are the main culprits of winter allergies?

The single worst culprit is indoor cigarette smoke. In our climate, molds mostly die off by frost time, except in a water-damaged home. Pets and dust mites are the bigger problems, and a central forced air heating system can make that worse by circulating these allergens through the house. Patients are often surprised to find that ‘dry air' is not all that bad for them. We advise humidity be kept under 45 percent to avoid mold and dust mite breeding. Around the holidays, there also can be fumes and odors that worsen symptoms.

How do people fight winter allergies?

First, people should have a basic allergy test, either blood testing or skin testing, to find out what their specific triggers are so they can focus their efforts. If a pet is the issue, the best thing is to get it out of the house completely. Furry pets should never go in the bedroom of the allergy sufferer.

Allergists have recommended mite-proof mattress and pillow encasings, and washing the bed linens with hot water to combat that allergy. Unfortunately, that isn't always enough. With mold allergy, it's important to get the water damage properly fixed and use a dehumidifier to prevent dampness inside. If all those things are tackled, then blends of daily allergy and asthma control medications can really help most patients. Combining an oral and nasal medication is usually the best option, and many good brands are now available over the counter. For patients who continue to suffer, allergy shots can offer a cure; done early in life, they can lessen the chance a child develops asthma and lower the lifetime cost of allergy care.

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