Battling Allergies and Asthma during the Holidays

Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor
Published Online: Tuesday, December 20, 2011
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For the millions of Americans who suffer from allergies and asthma, celebrating the holidays is no walk in the park. From fresh trees and plants to scented candles to desserts containing nuts, triggers are everywhere, and managing them can be tricky.

“During the holiday season you’re going to be exposed to allergens,” said Myron Zitt, MD, an allergist and past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). “Be aware of where the problems lie so you can deal with them.”

Experts from the ACAAI as well as a number of organizations are providing tips to help allergy and asthma sufferers navigate the land mines that await them at parties, in the mall, and even in their own homes this holiday season:
  • Take an antihistamine before leaving the house (make sure to find an allergist who can prescribe appropriate medication).
  • Skip the alcohol. This way, individuals can avoid a possible reaction to ingredients, including preservatives in beer or wine.
  • Eat smart. Be aware that holiday goodies such as dips and desserts may contain common allergens such as dairy, nuts, soy, and wheat. Ask the host about the ingredients contained in the food, and be sure to carry injectable epinephrine.
  • Steer clear of fireplaces—smoke is a common asthma trigger.
  • Avoid natural Christmas trees, which contain mold on the trunk or the terpene in the tree sap.
  • If using an artificial tree, make to clean it before putting it up and decorating, as it may be covered with dust after spending the year in the attic.
  • Avoid real poinsettias and fresh floral arrangements. Poinsettias are rubber-based and are not safe for those with latex allergies. In addition, moist soil encourages the growth of mold, which causes the passageways to swell and restrict airflow and can result in skin rashes.
  • Don’t use scented candles or home fragrance oils, as they can aggravate the sinuses and respiratory system.
  • Store holiday decorations in large, resealable plastic tubs to avoid dust build-up.
  • Get a seasonal flu shot. Influenza is easily transmitted during this time and can worsen asthma.
Because health issues persist long after the holidays, below is a list of tips to make all winter months more bearable for individuals with allergies:
  • Keep the indoor humidity level below 35% to help prevent the growth of mold and mites.
  • Use exhaust fans when showering or cooking to remove excess humidity and odors.
  • Replace furnace filters every 2 to 3 months. Use high-efficiency filters that can capture up to 30 times more allergens, and make sure furnace fans are always on.
  • When outdoors, keep children from playing in areas that promote mold growth, such as dark, wooded areas. Also, ensure both children and adult allergy sufferers wash their hands frequently and avoid touching their face, as this decreases exposure to the common winter viruses.
  • Use dust-proof covers for mattresses, box springs, and pillows to decrease exposure to allergens.
  • Wash bed linens and nightclothes in hot water (above 130 degrees) to kill dust mites.
  • If you must use a humidifier, keep it clean and change the water frequently to avoid contamination by mold and bacteria. Central humidifiers should be sprayed with an anti-mold agent.
  • Don’t put plants in the bedroom—decaying leaves and increased humidity can stimulate growth of mold.
  • Do not exercise in the cold air if you have cold-sensitive asthma. Choose indoor exercises like swimming, as warm humid air is easier on the airways.
“The cold season can be especially difficult for those who suffer from a combination of indoor allergies and asthma,” said Elizabeth Leef Jacobson, MD, of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “During the winter, families spend more time indoors, exposing them to irritants like dust mites, pet dander, smoke, household sprays and chemicals, and gas fumes-any of which can make their lives miserable.”

In addition to following the steps provided above, individuals with allergies are encouraged to contact their family physician or allergist for proper evaluation and treatment.

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