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How to Avoid Allergic Reactions During Christmas

Allergies and asthma attacks can ruin even the most joyous holiday celebrations. Decorations, different foods, heating units, dry air, and other factors play a role in increased allergic disease. Those who welcome new additions to their families of the furry variety (dogs, cats, guinea pigs) may be surprised to learn of previously unknown allergies. However, with a few strategically placed measures, you can remain healthy during the holidays, enjoy the festivities, and have a fantastic start to the new year.

Key takeaways:

Beating allergies & asthma during the holidays

Allergies can be triggered by foods, pollens, dust, dander, irritants like chemicals (e.g., bleach), smoke from a burning fire (e.g., fire pits or fireplaces), and certain products containing latex and other ingredients. Sometimes, allergens are known, but the holiday often brings parties, decorations, and exposure to other people's homes and environments, and new allergies may pop up at any time. For those who have asthma, holiday celebrations can be far from joyous if asthma flares. Taking care to avoid triggers when feasible and being prepared in case of allergies or asthma attacks can lessen holiday stress and allow you to enjoy your festivities with ease.

Common holiday allergy triggers

This time of year often brings thoughts of Christmas, though holiday triggers can arise with various holidays and traditions. However, the most commonly recognized triggers for allergies or asthma flares this time of year include Christmas trees (fake and live), Christmas decorations (e.g., wreaths), fireplace and fire pit smoke, and foods.

The Christmas tree: #1 trigger this season

While numerous triggers this time of year can lead to symptoms, what is the most common allergy trigger? For most, it's likely a live Christmas tree. Pine, fir, hemlock, and spruce are the traditional Christmas tree varieties. That said, most people do not have an allergy to the tree itself. It is the exposure to mold spores, dust, or tree pollen which triggers a reaction. Further, the tree may have been treated with chemicals, such as terpenes, which give your home a wonderful Christmas tree smell, but those chemicals can wreak havoc on some individuals.

While artificial trees often aren't allergic triggers, these synthetic, sometimes plastic, Christmas trees are likely hidden away in closets, attics, or garages during the rest of the year. They are notorious for carrying dust, dust mites, mold spores, and other potential allergens and, thus, pose a potential risk to allergy and asthma sufferers alike.

Direct contact with Christmas trees or wreaths, rather than inhaled exposure, can lead to a rash. This potentially results from direct contact with a component in the tree's sap (rosin or colophony). It may present itchy and similar in appearance to poison ivy.

Food allergies

While inhaled allergens and contact dermatitis (skin rash) are commonly associated with typical decorations this time of year, food remains a possible trigger. Exposure to new dishes, new desserts, and new traditions, while exciting, can bring unwanted reactions. Common food triggers include:

  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish or shellfish
  • Wheat
  • Sesame
  • Eggs
  • Soy

Some Christmas dishes may contain surprise ingredients, such as nuts, peanut butter, or shellfish. A good example is marzipan, which contains almonds and egg whites. Another one is mortadella spiced meat, which can include pistachios.

Communication is key if you attend parties for Christmas, Hanukkah, or other celebrations this year with foods you are not normally exposed to. Talk with the host about what to bring and what they are having, and avoid anything of concern. If you are hosting and know of someone with an allergy, try to label foods to help identify key possible triggers.

When preparing foods, avoid cross-contamination and clean well between the use of various ingredients. Be ready to ask questions and use oils and utensils carefully. Even exposure to some food allergens can occur through skin contact or in the aerosol from cooking.

Other allergy triggers

Allergens can sneak up on us and can be found almost anywhere. Additional allergies can be found in drinks, decorations, and products with latex, and the onset of stress can worsen allergies and asthma.


Like foods, various drinks can cause allergic reactions or irritations. There can be sulfites in wine, pine nuts in craft beer, almonds in gin drinks, dairy in cream liquors, egg whites in some cocktails like Whiskey Sours, and gluten in beers. These can trigger reactions, sometimes allergic in nature, headaches, or GI upset.

Latex allergies

Holiday-related items that may aggravate a latex allergy in certain individuals include rubber bands, latex gloves, balloons, eyelash adhesives, and other products.

Certain foods (vegetables and fruits) may trigger a cross-reaction, causing allergic signs in 30–50% of those with a known latex allergy. The list of foods that can potentially cross-react is long, but examples include high-reactivity foods such as bananas, avocados, chestnuts, and kiwi fruit, and moderate-reactivity foods like apples, tomatoes, celery, and carrots.


For people with asthma, smoke from cigarettes, cigars, fireplaces, and firepits can make celebrations miserable. Be mindful of where smoking is permitted, and before lighting that wood-burning fire, let people know. When prepared, those with allergies or asthma can better protect themselves from an attack. Additionally, many of our decorations this time of year are flammable, so consider this when deciding where to let people smoke or where to set up your outdoor fire.

Stress, a hidden trigger

In addition to physical triggers of asthma, such as those discussed above, while the holidays are often festive and joyous times, they can also be a time of stress. This results in anticipating upcoming events, planning parties, hosting, purchasing and giving gifts, and more. For asthmatics, stress can lead to worsening symptoms. When we get stressed, our bodies release hormones, including cortisol. Various hormones and the body's normal response to stress can cause the tightening of muscles that control breathing, including the diaphragm. This can trigger difficulty breathing and lead to an attack.

Allergy and asthma symptoms

Christmas trees, live or artificial, can cause allergic symptoms, including runny and stuffy noses, wheezing, coughing, sneezing, and itchy and watery eyes. Some people who are not usually prone to allergic symptoms may show signs due to the sheer number of allergens in the tree.

Asthma flares can start with mild symptoms, including allergic signs and congested or blocked ears. However, symptoms can quickly progress to wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing. If one fails to act (remove from the trigger or take rescue meds), worsening asthma may manifest with a more rapid or too-slow respiratory rate, short and shallow breaths (not able to take a deep breath), trouble walking, shortness of breath (feeling like you cannot catch your breath), or worse.

Food allergy symptoms can be hard to recognize as caused by a specific food on the first exposure. Signs are often very mild the first time but worsen with subsequent exposures. Symptoms generally start within 30 minutes to 2 hours after ingestion, though it could be longer. Symptoms may include vomiting, hives, coughing, wheezing, tightness of the throat, itchy tongue, tongue swelling, trouble breathing, dizziness, and pale skin (or, if progressing, blue hue).


Anaphylaxis, a true emergency, can occur with any allergen. This can happen with inhaled or ingested exposures, causing severe trouble breathing and shock. Without treatment, this can be fatal. Those who know they are at risk often carry an EpiPen® (epinephrine), which may be used while waiting for medical assistance. If you suspect this condition, call emergency responders ASAP.

Tips to avoid allergic reactions

Here are some practical tips to avoid most common allergies during this holiday season.

Christmas tree tips

We can do numerous things to avoid allergic reactions and asthma attacks. We can use caution and avoidance when feasible. However, we can take some specific steps when setting up and working with Christmas trees to lessen allergen risks.

  1. Shake the loose debris from the tree. It will dislodge some mold, dust, and excess or loose needles. Some people will use a leaf blower or air compressor.
  2. Limit the amount of time the tree is displayed in the house.
  3. Use a water hose to rinse the tree or wreaths and decorations (either real or artificial), and allow these to dry prior to bringing them into the house. Of course, this may not be possible in colder climates.
  4. Use dilute chlorine bleach solution. It can help kill mold spores on trees and wreaths. However, this can also be a trigger for those with asthma and a chemical irritant. Further, this can be toxic to some animals, so it should be used in a well ventilated area with caution.
  5. Store artificial trees in dry, cool spaces when the season is over. Keep them well covered and protected from the environment.
  6. Check stored Christmas items periodically to prevent insect or rodent infestation.
  7. We all learned to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it may be beneficial to wear a mask when setting up the decorations and the tree.
  8. Wash or dust ornaments and decorations.
  9. Beware of introducing unusual fragrances into the home, particularly scented candles and potpourri, as they can cause allergic symptoms.

Treating allergic & asthmatic flares

During the holiday season, those who experience allergy symptoms or asthma flare-ups can consider trying the following treatments:

  • Avoidance (while not the ideal, this may be the only option for some exposures, such as smoke from burning fireplaces).
  • Nasal saline or irrigation.
  • Non-drowsy antihistamines.
  • Allergy drops for the eyes (antihistamine or steroid drops).
  • Nasal steroid sprays.
  • For skin rashes, topical hydrocortisone, or antihistamine creams.
  • Avoid stressful situations that can exacerbate allergic/asthmatic symptoms.

Useful products to have in the house during the holiday season may include antihistamines, topical creams, prescribed epinephrine injections, and, if needed, medical alert jewelry for certain highly allergic individuals.

Preventing allergies this holiday

The best way to prevent allergic reactions or asthma flares is avoidance, but that is not always possible. If you go out to a party or social gathering, ensure you have rescue medications readily accessible (albuterol inhaler, antihistamines, eye drops). Minimizing exposure to dust, mold, smoke, pollen, and other allergens during the holiday season can lessen your chance of developing a reaction and allow you to spend more time enjoying the celebrations, community, and fun.

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Jessica A.
prefix 4 months ago
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prefix 1 year ago
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