The winter holiday season is a good time to gather wood for the fireplace, pull the decorations out of storage and prepare for festive feasts. It's also time for those of us with allergies to shift our focus. The grasses and weeds of summer may be gone, but our allergies haven't necessarily disappeared. They've moved indoors with us—and they're staying for the holidays.
Indoor allergies are a problem for millions of Americans every winter, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). And almost everything about the holidays can make them worse—from Christmas trees to candles to foods.
Avoidance is the first line of defense, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). If you're allergic to it, stay away from it.
And if you can't avoid it, make sure you're prepared to deal with it—with medications and other measures.
It shouldn't be a surprise that bringing greenery indoors can increase allergy and asthma symptoms—especially greenery as large as a Christmas tree.
"Mold spores and pollens stick to the branches of the trees," says James L. Sublett, MD, past president of the ACAAI. "As the tree starts to dry out, those things will break off and fly around the house."
Many people are also allergic to terpene, a substance found in the oil of evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands.
If holiday greenery causes serious allergy problems, use artificial products. But there are ways to lessen pollen and other allergens on real holiday trees. Try these tips from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) and the AAAAI:
If you choose an artificial tree, avoid spraying on pine scents or artificial snow. These can irritate your lungs and aggravate allergies, according to the AAFA.
Decor and more
Decorations kept in storage pose another potential problem for people with allergies and asthma.
"You can stir up a lot of dust and mold when you open up storage boxes that have been kept in the basement or attic," Dr. Sublett says.
To avoid these problems, store holiday decorations in sealed plastic containers instead of cardboard boxes, Dr. Sublett says.
"We also recommend you avoid scented candles, potpourris and plug-in air fresheners," Dr. Sublett says. "These can aggravate asthma—not just on holidays, but all year round."
Before you eat
From Halloween through New Year's, the holidays are filled with foods that commonly cause allergies, according to the AAFA. These include wheat, eggs, soy, fish and nuts.
"The key is to always know what you're eating," Dr. Sublett says, "and that can sometimes be difficult. So don't be embarrassed to ask your host or the caterer what ingredients are in the food."
It only takes a small amount of food to trigger an allergic reaction. The offending item doesn't even have to be in the food itself, but merely present on a contaminated cooking utensil.
Anyone with a serious food allergy should carry a kit of injectable epinephrine at all times, just in case of emergency.
If your child has food allergies, send along a safe holiday snack to school holiday parties.
Visiting or hosting
If you're planning an extended visit with family or friends, let them know about any allergies in your family before your trip.
And if you plan to host visitors, ask them about allergies well in advance.
Wash bed linens in hot water to reduce dust mites. And don't wait to vacuum immediately before guests arrive, Dr. Sublett says, since that can stir up dust and make allergies worse.
Talk to your doctor
Prepare for the holidays by talking to your doctor.
Be sure that you have any medications you might need and that you know what symptoms to look for.
If you have asthma, talk to your doctor about getting an annual flu vaccination. You might also want to ask him or her whether you should be vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia.