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Allergies are traditionally associated with spring and summer, when high pollen counts fill the air and leave hay fever sufferers sneezing and scratching at sore eyes. But winter brings its own allergens, with dust mites and mold spores spelling misery for a whole new batch of sufferers.
Allergic reactions occur when the immune system responds to the presence of a foreign substance. When it suspects an invasion, the immune system produces proteins called antibodies.
However, it can go into overdrive and perceive substances as harmful when they are not, producing an immune response, such as a runny nose, in an attempt to flush out the invader.
But the figures are not to be sneezed at. A 2005 report by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) states that allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the US, with health care costs in excess of $18 billion a year.
The organization also notes that allergic diseases affect about 50 million people a year and that about half of all Americans test positive for at least one of the 10 most common allergens, listing those as:
The Mayo Clinic describes dust mites as microscopically small bugs that thrive in house dust. Bedding, carpets and upholstered furniture are ideal homes for dust mites, and they love warm, humid conditions. So when the heating gets switched on, dust mites enjoy the perfect environment in which to breed.
The severity of a reaction to dust mites differs between people. Those with a mild reaction may have occasional bouts of sneezing, watery eyes and a runny nose. For some unlucky people, the condition is chronic, leaving them with persistent sneezing, congestion, facial pressure and a cough.
People with asthma may experience tightness in the chest and hear an audible wheezing sound when breathing out. To further compound their misery, they may also have trouble sleeping as they struggle to catch their breath or endure bouts of coughing.
Sinus infections are another complication of dust mite allergies. Chronic inflammation of the tissues in the nasal passages can block sinuses - hollow spaces connecting the nasal passages. This increases the likelihood of developing sinusitis and other infections.
While many individuals may see their beds as a sanctuary, dust mites may be guilty of the same. Depending on the age of a mattress, it may be home to between 1 million and 10 million dust mites.
And even more frightening, the weight of mattress can double in 10 years due to a dust mite infestation. A pillow also collects its fair share - with its weight increasing by about 10% after one year.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) estimates that 27% of Americans are sensitive to dust mites.
Spores from the fungi Alternaria alternata are also known to provoke allergic reactions. A report published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that this is common in US homes, with the researchers claiming to have found it in 95-99% of dust samples taken from 831 housing units in 75 different locations.
Mold species also thrive in warm and humid conditions, and again this is a versatile and adaptive species. Damp bathroom surfaces, carpet pads, towels, even soap-coated grout can be a "bijou residence" for mold.
When ready to breed, the mold releases spores into the air. These may make new homes on other damp surfaces, or they may be breathed in by people.
However, the AAAAI notes that mold spore allergy is not as common as other airborne allergens, it rarely occurs in isolation. Luckily, many of the steps individuals can take to reduce one allergen are just as effective on others.
Many people claim to be allergic to cats or dogs, but in reality, it is not the fur they are allergic to but an allergen found in the animal's saliva or dander (dead skin cells).
Most people react almost immediately to the allergens, with symptoms appearing within a few minutes of exposure. But some see their symptoms building up over a few hours, usually peaking 8 to 12 hours after contact with the animal.
For most people, allergies are an annoyance rather than a major health hazard. But for people with other conditions, including asthma, an allergic reaction may cause complications.
Mold is known to case infections in the skin or mucus membranes, and on rare occasions it can cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis, where the airborne spores inflame the lungs.
Health care professionals can help treat the symptoms of allergies such as these with an array of decongestants, antihistamines, corticosteroids, oral drops and even immunotherapy - a series of allergy shots that has proven beneficial for hay fever sufferers.
While there is no "cure" for an allergy, there are simple tips individuals can follow to reduce the risk of exposure:
Written by Belinda Weber
Copyright: Medical News Today
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Asthma and allergic diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 2005, Report
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Weber, Belinda. "Microscopic hazards in your home this winter." Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 5 Dec. 2013. Web.
9 Mar. 2014. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/269722>
Weber, B. (2013, December 5). "Microscopic hazards in your home this winter." Medical News Today. Retrieved from
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