Feature Archive

Stop Your Holiday Allergies

By planning ahead, people with allergies can ward off 'Christmas tree syndrome' and other nuisances the season may bring.

By Paula Moyer
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

If you have allergies, you expect the sneezing and coughing of summer to end with the frost. However, if you've noticed that your allergy symptoms get new life with the start of each holiday season, you're not alone.

"At this time of year, people are exposed more to indoor allergens, to begin with," Clifford W. Bassett, MD, tells WebMD. "These include dust mites, pet dander, and cockroaches." On top of the usual household allergens, a number of holiday-specific substances and events can create problems for people with allergies, he says. Bassett is in private practice at ENT & Allergy Associates in New York.

One example of an allergy that rears its head at this time of year is the so-called "Christmas tree syndrome," he says. "People with allergies can react to terpene, a substance found in the oil and sap of evergreen trees," he says. "If you go to a house or building with Christmas trees, or with wreaths and garlands made of evergreen branches, and you're allergic to terpene, you may have difficulties."

As the season progresses, the problem with evergreens is compounded, according to Jonathan Field, MD. "The oil and sap are more problematic when a tree is freshly cut and brought into the house," Field tells WebMD. "As it sits in the house, the branches can gather dust. The water that the tree sits in is a breeding ground for mold." He is the director of the pediatric allergy and immunology clinic at New York University Medical Center.

Both Bassett and Field express concern about holiday ornaments that sit in the attic collecting dust. Storage in resealable bags can minimize this problem, as can washing ornaments when possible, says Field.

The partying itself can contribute to several allergies, particularly food allergies and animal dander. "Despite their best intentions, people with food allergies can have an inadvertent exposure to offending substances such as peanuts and shellfish," Bassett says.

Field says that the rate of severe food allergy reactions "goes dramatically up at this time of year."

The Season Is the Reason

Experts say that the underlying culprit is the season of merrymaking itself. At office parties and potluck dinners, normally vigilant people may be enjoying a few drinks and forget to ask the usual questions about what the food item contains and how it was prepared. Pet-allergic people may start noticing the all-too-familiar itching eyes, sneezing, and coughing when they go to a party at a friend's house. The family cat may be hiding from the guests, but the dander is everywhere.

The solutions are not much different from allergy strategies throughout the year, says Bassett. The first line of defense is avoidance. "If you have Christmas tree syndrome and stop bringing in natural trees and garlands, one problem will be significantly reduced," he says. "For people with food allergies, the same questions about ingredients and preparation apply to the holiday season as the rest of the year."

Both encouraged pet-allergic people to be alert to potential exposures. If you don't know whether the host has cats, dogs, or birds, call and ask. Then you can decline the invitation or pretreat with an antihistamine, if this approach is effective for you.

Field encourages non-allergic people to be sensitive to the needs of their allergic guests. "If you have allergic guests, keep pets out of the entertainment rooms," he says. "If you don't know if your guests have allergies, ask them."

He adds that when it comes to preventing allergic reactions, "a little bit goes a long way." For example, the simple act of frequent hand-washing can remove dust and dander from your hands. Wearing a pollen mask while vacuuming can reduce the amount of dust you breathe in.

Both agreed that continuing to be alert to allergies during the holiday season need not take away enjoyment but should rather add to it, because you will be more protected from allergy symptoms.

Originally published Dec. 5, 2003.

Medically updated Oct. 21, 2004.