For millions of people across the UK, winter doesn’t just spell a cold nip in the air and long, dark nights – it brings misery in the form of allergies.
Because, contrary to popular belief, it’s not only spring and summer with their high pollen count and hay fever that bring on runny noses, itchy eyes, rashes and congestion. The winter months can be just as bad.
Perennial allergic rhinitis – or so-called “home fever” to the rest of us – affects as many as 12 million in the UK, with numbers rising every year.
These people, say experts, are allergic to their own homes yet either don’t realise it or are failing to take simple steps to help make their symptoms better.
One of the key culprits in bringing on allergic reactions is dust mites. The problem in the winter is that closing doors and turning up the heating creates a breeding ground for these microscopic creatures.
Other common allergy triggers include household moulds – which can be hidden beneath wallpaper or in the soil of house plants – and pets as well as domestic chemicals found in cleaning products.
So could one of these winter “home fever” victims be you? If you suffer from any of the following then read on for some advice on how to help yourself:
*Itchy, runny or congested nose
*Irritable airways, coughing, tight chest, wheezing or shortness of breath
*Itchy, watery eyes
*Itchy skin, rashes or wheals
*Congested sinuses and a headache
*Symptoms worsening indoors, in bed or early morning
Lindsay McManus from health charity Allergy UK says: “With the most common symptoms of an indoor allergy or ‘home fever’ being a runny nose and sneezing, people all too often confuse allergy symptoms with a common cold or flu and therefore don’t treat the cause of the problem.”
Of those afflicted, 59 per cent say their symptoms are worse in the bedroom – unsurprising when you consider the average bed harbours two million dust mites and the average pillow (brace yourselves) doubles in weight over a period of six months due to dust mite faeces.
Although there is no actual ‘cure’, there are some steps you can take to manage symptoms and reduce the amount of indoor allergens in the home. For dust mites, they include:
*Dust regularly with a damp duster followed by a dry cloth
*Wash bedding once a week at 60°C or higher
*Regularly steam clean carpets and curtains
*Use allergen-proof covers on mattresses, duvets and pillows
*Replace your mattress every ten years and buy new pillows yearly
*Use an air purifier
*If possible, remove carpeting in bedrooms
*Where carpets can’t be removed, vacuum with high quality filters (HEPA filter or S-class, for example)
*Vacuum all upholstered furniture at least twice a week
*Wash stuffed toys frequently at 60°, or place them in a plastic bag in the freezer for 12 hours once a month before washing at a lower temperature
*Increase ventilation: use trickle-vents in double glazing, or open windows
*Use extractor fans in bathrooms and kitchens
Some of the more common culprits among cleaning products include air fresheners, bleach, oven cleaners, spray polish, toilet cleaner, glass spray and washing powder, which contain asthma-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic fumes or irritating synthetic fragrances.
The NHS advises using natural products instead, such as vinegar for limescale, bicarbonate of soda for grime or borax powder instead of bleach. Allergy UK’s website also has a list of alternative recommended products.
As for pet allergies, it’s not enough to Hoover up the dog hairs occasionally: the allergen is found in animals’ saliva, skin and urine and becomes airborne very easily. Cat allergens in particular may be found on walls and ceilings months, or even years, after the animal has left the house.
If you can’t bear to part with your beloved moggy or pooch, despite the morning sneezes and itchy eyes, make sure you never allow your pet in the bedrooms and wash cats and dogs twice a week, grooming them regularly outside.
Small pets in cages, such as hamsters, birds or guinea pigs, should not be kept in the bedrooms of allergic people and allergic children should not play on carpets where animals have been, warns Allergy UK.
And as well as vacuuming all surfaces regularly, walls and floors should be washed, carpets and soft furnishings steamed, and bedding and curtains cleaned frequently.
Meanwhile, extra steps to blitz mould include: tackle damp areas on walls, particularly behind kitchen units and cupboards; use a dehumidifier to keep indoor humidity at 50 per cent or less; keep internal doors closed when showering or cooking to prevent damp air spreading through the house; try not to dry damp clothing indoors; and keep house plants to a minimum, changing their soil regularly.