Allergic Rhinitis: Five Mid-Winter Survival Tips

by James Thompson, M.D. Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

The "dog days" of winter means more than bone-chilling cold weather and snow. Although people with seasonal allergy problems tend to favor this time of the year, perennial allergy sufferers and those with non-allergic rhinitis are currently singing the blues. What is it about mid-winter that brings on so many sinus complaints?

Here are some explanations:

-The changing weather fronts are associated with swings in temperature, barometric pressure and outdoor humidity. These atmospheric conditions may cause nasal congestion and postnasal drip (drainage down the throat) if you have allergic or non-allergic rhinitis.

-As we run our furnaces to keep our indoor areas warm the air inside becomes very dry. The sources of humidity from our bathrooms and kitchen (from cooking) are not enough to moisten the dry heat emanating from forced air heating vents or radiators. This means very dry air is inhaled through our nasal passages. Despite the ability of the nose to add liters of water to air drawn in over the course of a day, under-humidified air may contribute to sinus complaints.

-Of course, cold and flu season is here for another two or more months. My office phones are jumping off the hook at the start of each day mostly because of viral cold symptoms disrupting sinus allergy and asthma control.

-Finally, indoor allergy and irritant factors stand out more in the winter simply because we spend so much more time indoors. Dust mites, pets, fumes, fragrances and in some cases second and third hand smoke trigger more respiratory problems. Second hand smoke comes from the burning tobacco stream of cigarettes, cigars or pipes in combination with the exhaled smoke. Third hand smoke is the residue of the burnt tobacco (ash) which settles on the floor (infiltrating carpets) couches, cushions, curtains, beds, stuffed animals, ducts and almost any objects. Third hand smoke sticks around for months to years and may contribute to asthma attacks, sinusitis, bronchitis, chronic coughing and cancer risk.

You may be having a tough time this winter for one or more of the above reasons. Are you wondering what you can do about it?

Here are 5 Tips to get through the rest of the winter:

    1. Make sure your home, and especially bedroom, is well insulated from drafts which may cause excessive drying of your upper airway. Find a way to seal off the area around your windows. Close your room door if other areas of the home are very cool. This may also save on your heating bill

    1. Some source of humidity is important when your furnace is being used. A central humidifier is ideal but if you don't have one consider getting a portable one for winter time use, just over night. Meticulously clean it according to instructions in the manual so you don't create a mold problem. Be careful not to over humidify (avoid running on high 24-7).

    1. Hand washing cannot be over emphasized. Germs often travel from hand to mouth after contacting people that are already sick or objects that have been contaminated with germs from people harboring infection (door knobs, handles, pens, keys on a keyboard, tools, utensils etc.). Watch out for work phones (clean them off first). If a sink, soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer is the next best thing. We give flu shots through January

    1. Review tips on indoor environmental controls. If you have already restricted or kicked out the cat or dog (seriously!), purchased your certified dust encasements for your bedding and changed filters on your heating and cooling system, you are ahead of the class. Perhaps it is time to consider getting a high efficiency air filter device (HEPA filter) for the bedroom. Eliminate all tobacco smoking at all times!

    1. Last but not least, talk to your doctor about adjusting your allergy medication. I assist patients with this process every day. Sometimes this means cutting back on one medicine while increasing another. Occasionally I replace one medication with another. It depends on the specific symptom complaints of the patient.

By time you have it all figured out spring will be ushering in a new set of triggers. But that means warm weather for many of us!

James Thompson, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
James Thompson, M.D.

Dr. Thompson completed medical school and specialty training in allergy and immunology at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Allergy and Immunology. He sees adults and children in Chicago and greater Chicago area. He is also certified in Integrative Nutrition Coaching. Dr. Thompson is dedicated to incorporating holistic nutrition concepts into the treatment of asthma and other allergic diseases in order to achieve better health and reduce the need for medications.