The holiday season is in full swing. And while many people around the nation gear up for a joyful time with family and friends, those with allergies prepare for an onslaught of wheezes and sneezes that can wreck the holiday fun.
"The winter holidays are a particularly difficult time for people with allergies," said Mike Tringale, vice president of external affairs at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "There are respiratory allergies. There are food allergies. There are skin allergies. There are eye allergies. The list goes on."
But with a few simple tips and tricks from the experts, surviving and thriving during the season can be easier than cooking the holiday meal. The secret to success is planning in advance, well before common food, pet, and mold allergies turn Christmas and Hanukkah into a Halloween nightmare.
A Christmas tree is a smoking gun for people with allergies, according to Tringale. Real trees harbor mold spores that can trigger reactions, and fake trees are often stored for months or years in dusty attics and basements. They can also be coated with allergy-inducing chemicals.
"People may just assume they have a cold or cough that isn't going away when in fact it's from the allergens circulating in their home from the tree," said Dr. Neeta Ogden, an allergist in New York City.
The Fix: Keep fresh trees in the home for less than two weeks and wipe the trunk thoroughly with a solution of warm water and bleach (1 part bleach to 20 parts water). Consider hosing off a fake tree outside and letting it dry before bringing it indoors. And when the holidays are over, store the fake tree with a protective air-tight covering to prevent next year's dust mite invasion.
"Fireplaces are great for Santa's visit, but the burning wood, which can be moldy, dusty, and have chemicals, also causes respiratory symptoms," said Dr. Marjorie Slankard, director of the allergy clinic at Columbia-New York Presbyterian Medical Center.
The wood smoke from the fire can also trigger itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, or a scratchy throat.
The Fix: Stack your firewood outside and bring new logs in only when you are ready to use them in your fireplace or wood-burning stove. And make sure the fire burns in a well-ventilated area to avoid unnecessary smoke inhalation.
'Tis the season of candies, cakes, and cookies. But for those with food allergies, decadent holiday parties can be a set-up for serious missteps.
Common holiday ingredients like eggs, milk, soy, and nuts abound, and can cause potentially life-threatening allergic reactions if accidentally consumed. Even if a food does not seem to contain allergens, it may have been cross-contaminated if it was prepared alongside known allergens.
Alcohol at holiday parties adds to the danger, according to Dr. Scott Sicherer of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. It can lower inhibitions and increase the risk that you mistakenly eat an unsafe food.
The Fix: Ask what's in the buffet before you eat. If you're unsure of the ingredients of a certain food, completely avoid it. Consider making and bringing your own food to a holiday potluck. And most importantly, you should always have your emergency epi-pen ready in case of an unexpected emergency.
Your aunt's cat Fluffy may be adorable, but you'll need to steer clear if you're sensitive to the numerous allergens spread by domestic pets.
"A frequent issue is that pet-allergic individuals visit homes of relatives and friends where there are pets, which can cause nose and eye reactions as well as asthma with cough, wheezing and shortness of breath," said Dr. Mark Dykewicz, director of allergy and immunology at Wake Forest University.
The Fix: If you're hosting a party, clear the air of pet dander with the aid of a HEPA air filter. If possible, minimize the time that pets and guests are indoors together. But if exposure is inevitable, Dykewicz recommends taking over-the-counter antihistamines, like nasal cromolyn, 15 to 20 minutes before entering an allergic environment and every six hours thereafter, until the party ends.
Holiday party season inspires many women to apply make-up more frequently, but extra layers of foundation and cover-up could lead to dry and irritated skin, according to Ogden.
Not only can this "holiday skin" be socially isolating, but when compounded with cold weather, it can trigger uncomfortable eczema flares in those who suffer from the condition.
The Fix: Peoplewith sensitive skin should use only small amounts of make-up. Don't over-cleanse and dry out the skin, but do moisturize frequently. And if you have known eczema or other serious skin conditions talk to your doctor about ways to prevent winter flares.
Strong odors from potpourri, candles, incense, and scented decor can wreak havoc on allergies and can even exacerbate asthma, according to Dr. Tara Carr, director of the adult allergy program at Arizona Health Sciences Center.
Being trapped indoors with heavily-perfumed family and friends can also make for an uncomfortable celebration.
The Fix: Besides the obvious advice to not buy products with strong odors, the best way to avoid this one is to talk to your doctor or see an allergist about preventative medications you can take for up to a week prior to exposures.