woman suffering from winter allergies indoors

Yes, You Can Have Allergies in Winter

An allergist explains another reason you may cough, sniffle, sneeze, or have a headache this time of year

February 21, 2024

It’s respiratory illness season. Your nose is stuffed or running; you’re coughing or sneezing or both; you’re miserable, and everyone around you is taking a step back. Sometimes it feels like you have everything: cold, influenza (the flu), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and COVID. But could it be something else?

What’s going on?

dr. joel brooks

Joel Brooks, DO, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at CUIMC

“If nasal congestion does not go away after a week or two, you might have allergies, not cold or flu, especially if eyes are itchy or watery,” says allergist Joel Brooks, DO.  

While we don’t typically test for the common cold, you can (and should) test for COVID. RSV and flu can be tested for, too, depending on your symptoms. Allergies are immune system responses to a trigger. After viruses have been ruled out, it’s time to consider—and combat—the allergens in your home, office, school, and other environments.

We asked Brooks how to differentiate allergies from viruses and what to look for.  

Which allergens are present in winter?

Winter is cold and virus season, but you can still have allergies at any time.

Most winter allergens—substances that induce allergic responses—are found indoors.

Dust mites, cats, dogs, mice, cockroaches, and mold are frequent triggers of allergy symptoms, like sneezing, itching, skin rashes, and trouble breathing, during winter months.

Who is susceptible to winter allergies?

Everyone. Environmental allergies (immune reactions to allergens in your surroundings) can happen in children and adults, although they are rare in children below age three.

How do I know if I have allergies, not cold, flu, COVID, or other illnesses?

When it comes to respiratory illness and reactions, there are many symptoms common to both environmental allergies and infections, including cough, nasal congestion, headaches, and fatigue. But there are also several key differences.

  • Fevers, chills, muscle and body aches, loss of taste and smell, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are commonly seen in viral infections and are rarely seen in environmental allergies.
  • Itchy or watery eyes and sneezing are commonly seen in environmental allergies.

The NIH and CDC have helpful resources to learn more about these differences.

What’s the most frequent question people ask about allergies, and what do you tell them?

Are environmental allergies causing my hives?

Perhaps. But viruses are a far more common cause of hives.

During the winter, allergists commonly see patients who report developing hives without a clear trigger. When someone has hives, it’s important to first rule out food or environmental allergies. The next most common trigger is a virus.

Approximately 50% of children will experience an episode of hives due to a virus. Hives can develop due to viruses at any age. Some people who get hives never know they are sick because their immune system deals with the infection quickly. Any infection of any duration can still be enough to cause an outbreak of hives.

What’s the one thing you want everyone to know about allergies?

They’re treatable!

If you or someone in your home is experiencing respiratory or other symptoms and you are unsure what’s going on, talk to your doctor or other healthcare provider. You may need to be tested to find the best way to treat what you have and protect other people. It’s important to take care of yourself no matter the cause.


Joel Brooks, D.O., M.P.H., is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at CUIMC