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Allergy and Asthma Tips to Help You Enjoy the Holiday Season

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Lindsey Powell, PA-C
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Lindsey Powell, PA-C

If you have asthma and/or allergies, you might be a little hesitant to fully engage in all the holiday cheer. While family and friends are out merrymaking, you must wonder, will scented candles or the smell of pine from a Christmas tree trigger your asthma or allergies? Or if you have food allergies, are there seasonal foods you should avoid?

In this article, we explore all elements of the holidays. Whether you have allergies, asthma, or both, we hope these tips will help you safely enjoy this time of the year.

Holiday Parties and Seasonal Food Allergies

Holiday eating can be a huge risk for food allergy sufferers. From holiday side dishes to mystery cookies served at holiday parties, the food may look delicious, but is it worth eating? Here are some tips for navigating holiday meals:

  • When attending holiday parties, inform the host about your food allergy and ask about the ingredients used to prepare the meal.
  • Always ask what’s in a dish before you eat it! For instance, you might think you know all the ingredients, but you can never be truly certain what’s in it if it’s homemade.
  • Remind family and friends that strict avoidance is the only way to manage food allergies and that even “one little bit” can be harmful.
  • When visiting family or friends, be prepared for possible reactions to everything, from pets to food to perfumes. Never leave home without the appropriate medication(s), equipment, and a written action plan so that proper steps can be taken in case of an emergency.
  • If visiting homes that have pets, pre-medicate to minimize a possible reaction.
  • Bring an injectable epinephrine with you and keep it on your person during all holiday eating events.

Planning For The Holidays When Your Child Has Holiday Food Allergies

If your child has food allergies, it is only natural to be concerned about your child as parties at school, with relatives, and with friends may present challenges. The following are some tips to help you and your child keep your holiday spirit and keep food allergies at bay:

  • Speak with your child’s teacher when the school year begins and check in again before any holiday season. The teacher, the school nurse, and the school office should all be aware of your child’s food allergies. Instead of candy or food treats, suggest that stickers, hi-bounce balls, or similar non-food items replace them.
  • Always send a safe snack with your child when there is a party at school or at a friend’s home for after-school parties. Entrust the teacher with a bag of safe snacks in the event there is a party you didn’t prepare for in advance.
  • Rehearse with your son or daughter on how to say “no thank you” when offered food they are allergic to and remind your child repetitively that if they are unsure about a food and they must always politely decline.
  • Be prepared in the event that your child does have an allergic episode. Make sure the school has an epinephrine injector on hand to deal with anaphylaxis. Parents should always have two injectors on hand as epinephrine is the first line for treating anaphylaxis symptoms. It makes sense to also prepare your child for how an epinephrine injector works, and what happens if it is used. Repeat this role-playing often to ensure your child has the knowledge to lessen any fears of allergic reactions and fears about epinephrine.

Eight foods account for 90% of all food allergies. They are the following:

  1. Peanuts
  2. Tree nuts
  3. Milk
  4. Eggs
  5. Fish
  6. Shellfish
  7. Soy
  8. Wheat

Scented Candle Allergies and Asthma

The holidays are tied with certain scents like pine, baking cookies, holly leaves, and seasonal berries. If you can’t make all these scents happen in real life, then you might think a scented candle is the next best thing.

Unfortunately, scented candles can lead to asthma attacks. It’s even possible for a person with allergies to be agitated by the smell of candles. Candles, especially scented ones, can release toxic soot and petrochemicals that can aggravate the respiratory tract.

If you or a loved one deals with allergies and/or asthma related to scented candles, then follow these steps to enjoy a happy and fragrant holiday season:

  • Think about making the switch to unscented candles. These are visually appealing alternatives to creating ambiance without any scents.
  • If you must, use scented candles very sparingly. Always light them in well-ventilated areas. This way, the smell of the candle isn’t as prevalent. That may make it less likely for the candle to start an asthma or allergy attack.
  • Never light candles in the bedroom of an allergy and/or asthma sufferer. The prolonged exposure can disrupt sleep and worsen symptoms.
  • Similarly, do not light a candle at the dinner table.
  • Ask your relatives or friends to avoid burning wood in the fireplace. The smoke can irritate allergic and asthmatic airways.

Real Christmas Tree Allergies and Asthma

If you celebrate Christmas, then no decorating is complete without the home’s centerpiece: the Christmas tree. If you and your loved ones can’t get enough of the real thing, you could be inviting allergens into your home and your life, says the ACAAI.

There’s the tree sap’s terpene, dust, and mold to worry about triggering an allergy attack. The strong evergreen smell can also be problematic. It’s best to safeguard yourself in these ways:

  • Before decorating a live Christmas tree, allow it to dry out on an enclosed porch or garage. If you are allergic to mold you can also spray with a fungicide (be aware of a chemical odor).
  • Shake the tree off prior to placing it in the home. An air compressor can be helpful for blowing out debris.
  • The same goes if you have any wreaths or boughs made of real pine. These too could lead to allergy symptoms. Try to limit the number of days the greenery is in the home.
  • An air purifier in the same room as the tree can help reduce mold levels.
  • Consider buying an artificial Christmas tree to reduce allergens. Do not buy an artificial tree coated with sprayed-on “snow.” Such additions (including pine-scented sprays or oils) can aggravate asthma or allergy.
  • Even with artificial trees, you must be diligent about cleaning the tree of all dust before setting it up. Wear a mask when getting it out of storage every year and clean artificial Christmas trees outside before decorating, as they can gather mold and dust while in storage.
  • Wash fabric decorations in hot, soapy water before displaying them.
  • Use plastic, metal, or glass decorations that cannot trap dust mites.
  • When you’re finished celebrating, store your decorations in plastic boxes rather than cardboard, which can harbor mold.

Cold Weather Asthma

Caroling, ice skating, making snowmen…there are so many wintry activities to do around the holidays. Your lungs prefer for air to be warm and humidified (the job of your nose!) but cold, dry winter air can make breathing harder for some asthma patients.

If you have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, then outdoor winter activities could leave you symptomatic. You may have shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness, and wheezing after about five minutes in the cold. If it takes longer for your symptoms to show up, you can still typically expect them to manifest within 20 minutes. If you experience chest pain, you’re likely having a severe reaction and need emergency medical care.

Here’s how you can avoid pain and discomfort from exercise-induced bronchoconstriction this winter:

  • Ask your loved ones to move activities inside when possible.
  • Avoid overexerting yourself outside, if possible. If you stick to light activity, you may not trigger exercise-induced bronchoconstriction symptoms.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf when outside.

Fireplace Asthma

Few things bring on holiday cheer more than a roaring fire on a cold winter day. Unfortunately, breathing in smoky air can lead to shortness of breath for those with asthma. Here are some recommendations from the ACAAI for easier breathing:

  • Minimize your time around fireplaces, fire pits, or bonfires if you can help it. The smoke could lead to wheezing and other lung discomfort. Make an effort to not be downwind if outside.
  • Electric fireplaces can be a great alternative for creating that perfect holiday setting. These mimic the look and sounds of a real fire without any of the smoke or odors.

How Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center Can Help You Navigate the Holidays

The holidays can be a stressful time. Pay attention to your stress level which can sometimes exacerbate allergic symptoms or lead to an asthma attack.

We want you to enjoy the holiday season and its activities, so please reach out to us at Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center if you have concerns about asthma or allergies this year. We’ll discuss your management and treatment options, such as allergy shots, which may be a long-term solution for holiday season allergies.

We have offices across North and South Carolina, so you can set up an appointment at a location most convenient to you. Contact us to book your appointment today. Happy Holidays!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do candles cause allergies?

Candles release toxic soot and petrochemicals that can aggravate the respiratory tract, leading to allergic reactions such as sneezing and coughing. 

How do I know if I'm allergic to Christmas trees?

If you find yourself reacting around real Christmas trees, or even fake trees with sprayed-on snow or added pine smell, you are probably allergic. You may not notice, since the trees are put away most of the year, but be cautious when pulling them out of storage. 

Is a wood-burning fireplace bad for asthma?

Unfortunately, a wood-burning fireplace can aggravate asthma. Electric fireplaces are a great solution for providing ambiance without any smoke. 

What are the most common allergens in holiday foods?

The most common allergens in holiday foods are:

  • Nuts, often found in holiday cookies or other desserts
  • Milk, often found in side dishes
  • Eggs, often found in desserts
  • Fish and shellfish, often centerpiece dishes for holiday feasts
  • Soy and wheat, found in many prepared ingredients

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