Holiday allergies: Nothing to sneeze at

December 7, 2017 Providence Health Team
Allergies peak in the spring and fall, but the holidays bring unexpected triggers, from dusty decorations to potent potpourri.

If sneezes and sniffles are an anticipated part of your holidays, you’re not alone. Hay fever may be a distant summer memory, but there are a lot of things triggering allergies in the season of giving, and some of them are not so obvious. Who knew an artificial tree could be a dust mite incubator, or the leaves you track inside on your shoes and clothes hide mildew and mold spores?

Indeed, allergens lurk everywhere this time of year. We’re indoors more than out, which means constant exposure to dry recirculated air laden with dust, mold spores and pet dander. Add in holiday decorations, scents, food and travel, and it’s no wonder our sinuses kick into overdrive.

The evergreens

The bad news: Your beautifully lit, epic Christmas tree is providing cover for mold spores. Invisible to the naked eye, mold floats in the air like pollen, and mold spores love to snuggle into damp evergreen branches. This means your tree, boughs and wreaths are fraught with allergy-inducing stuff. Plus the sap, which contains terpene and other substances, can irritate skin and mucous membranes.

Prevent it: Give your tree, boughs and wreaths a good rinse outdoors and a shake or blowout with a leaf blower before bringing them in. That can help wash away those troublesome mold spores, as well as dust. Wear gloves and long sleeves when handling fresh evergreens to avoid getting sap on your skin.

If you decide artificial evergreens are for you, be sure to dust well before bringing them into your house. After the holidays, store them in a dry container to help minimize accumulation of dust, dust mites and mold.

Deck the halls

Your ornaments, lights and holiday tchotchkes have been stored out of sight for nearly a year, collecting dust and maybe even developing mold. Opening the boxes is likely followed by sneezing, coughing and nose-blowing.

Those beautiful poinsettias gathered at your hearth? They’re potential trouble, too. This festive plant shares some allergenic proteins with the rubber tree family, similar to those found in latex.

Prevent it: Before decorating your mantels, windows and trees, wipe down decorations thoroughly. When it’s time to repack, store the holiday trimmings in airtight, dry containers.

If you, a family member or holiday visitor have a latex allergy, keep poinsettias out of your house. Period.

Also, go easy on the spray snow. Frosted windows are fun, but aerosolized chemicals can be an irritant to the eyes, nose and lungs.

Candles, potpourri and air spray, oh my!

Cinnamon and spice are oh-so wonderful in cookies and cakes, but as a scent in candles, air sprays or potpourri, not so much. Your house may smell like the holidays, but the chemicals in these products can also trigger allergic reactions, such as nasal congestion, sneezing and runny nose.

Prevent it: Skip the chemical scents and make your own potpourri with orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, cloves and other sweet spices. If you need inspiration, there are tons of websites touting DIY recipes and ideas. Also, choose candles made of soy or beeswax to create a warm festive glow without the scent.

Festive foods

Hooray for winter holiday parties and seasonal foods! Enjoying the savory and sweet treats of the season is part of the joy. Unfortunately, it also increases your chance of accidentally eating or being tempted by foods that may cause an allergic reaction. The symptoms and severity of allergic reactions to food can vary, and can also be different for one person over time. The most serious reaction is anaphylaxis, a sudden and severe allergic reaction that may cause death.

Eight foods or food groups account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the U.S.: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts.

Prevent it:

When eating at a party, don’t hesitate to let your holiday host know about your food allergies, and ask about the ingredients in each dish. Volunteer to bring a dish to share that’s safe for you.

Holiday travel

At home, dust mites can be managed by changing air filters frequently, washing bedding in hot water at least twice a month, and buying allergen-resistant covers for pillows and mattress. Although you can’t control your indoor environment when traveling by plane or train, you can control where you sleep and what you eat.

Travel tips:

  • Take your own pillow with an allergen-proof cover, or request a down-free pillow if you’re staying in a hotel or with friends.
  • If you have food allergies, bring your own snacks along.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Bring medications or your asthma inhaler when traveling.

Expert advice

For expert input, we spoke to to Loch S. Chandler, N.D., medical director of the Providence Integrative Medicine Clinics. During the holidays, and beyond, Dr. Chandler encourages dusting and vacuuming regularly to manage allergens already present in your home. “An air filter can be helpful, too,” he says.

In addition, Dr. Chandler recommends taking care of your “internal environment,” in other words, your overall health. “If we aren't taking care of ourselves, the more rundown we are, the more these things [allergens, irritants] can stress us or become an issue,” he says. “So, maintain a good diet – make healthy choices, low sugar and good hydration. A moist airway helps trap particulates earlier and not allow them to get deeper into your respiratory system where they could be more problematic. Get plenty of sleep and exercise. All of this will help your resilience and ability to cope with potential irritants, allergens, viruses, bacteria, etc.”

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