This is the time of year when a lot of New Jerseyans are getting sick. But guess what: Your cough, runny nose and sneezing may be the result of allergies, not a cold or the flu.

“We’re all turning on our heat at home right now and that dryness, especially from the forced air heating system, can cause a lot of nasal irritation,” said allergy expert Ellen Sher, of Allergy Partners of New Jersey in Ocean Township and Middletown.

She noted at this time of year, “people are spending more time indoors, so in addition to being exposed to the dry heat you’re also exposed to other allergens in your home: dust mites, animal dander."

She said when temperatures start to drop, some people develop what’s called vasomotor rhinitis, an inflammation and swelling of the mucous membranes of the nose.

Another cause of sneezing and coughing is holiday decorations.

“A lot of people are taking decorations out of their attic this time of year and there’s a lot of dust in those decorations," she said.

Christmas trees are a major cause of allergic reactions.

“When you cut those down and put them in a bin of water, they’re going to grow mold on them pretty quickly, so for those who are sensitive we do recommend artificial trees and artificial foliage.”

But how do you know if you’ve got allergies or a cold?

Sher said when you suffer allergic reactions you may have severe symptoms one day then mild problems the next, “but a cold tends to get gradually worse, and then gradually better, and a lot of times it’s associated with a little bit more of a feeling of achyness.”

She also noted we are seeing “a lot of upper respiratory infections being passed around at this time of year.”

To deal with all of these issues she recommended getting a humidifier.

“We don’t generally like humidifiers in the allergy world because over-humidifying can increase dust mite and mold growth, but when the air is very, very dry, they can be very, very helpful.”

She said ideally you want to keep the humidity level in your home between 36 and 49 percent and you can pick up a low-cost humidity gauge at a home store.

“Another thing that can help is a nasal saline spray," she added. "You can just use that as needed throughout the day. That can help with the dry sensation you can get in your nasal passages.”