Pass the tissues and antihistamine please -- 'tis the season for holiday allergies. Like unwanted gifts, sneezing and congestion arrive, making allergy sufferers miserable and putting a damper on holiday fun.
Fortunately you don't have to be sidelined from the festivities. Whether it's symptoms to food, pets, mold or mildew, allergies during the holidays can be beat -- with lifestyle changes, medication, and a few simple tips.
Why Allergies Spike During the Holidays
Lots of holiday favorites can trigger or irritate allergies, from food and pets to wood-burning fires and seasonal greenery.
And while you may manage allergy symptoms pretty well most of the year, symptoms to indoor allergens like these can really spike during the holiday season.
Why? Blame our tendency to snuggle in when the weather cools.
"You're in a closed-up house, the heater is on, the windows shut --- that's why indoor allergies get worse in the winter," says Asriani Chiu, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and medicine (allergy/immunology), at the College of Wisconsin.
You can do a lot to alleviate holiday allergies -- but first you need to know what's triggering your symptoms to begin with.
What's Behind Holiday Allergies
More than 40 million Americans cope with year-round allergies; the causes can be nearly as varied as the people and their locations. But there are some common holiday allergy triggers, including:
- Food. Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas: winter holidays mean lots of dining away from home, plenty of seasonal foods, and an abundance of parties -- all of which heighten the chances you'll accidentally eat -- or be outright tempted by -- foods you're allergic to.
- Mold. It's invisible to the naked eye, it floats in the air like pollen, and your exposure to it may increase during the holidays because mold spores love damp evergreens like the wreaths, boughs, and trees we bring inside this time of year. The mold and mildew in decaying leaves only adds to the irritation as we track them inside on shoes and clothes.
- Pets. Your pets probably enjoy the seasonal socializing as much as you do. That's one reason symptoms to pet allergies can worsen around the holidays; pets are indoors more, both at your house and in the homes of friends and family.
- Dust mites. These microscopic allergens are a perennial allergy irritant and they can be even more aggravating around the holidays when the air gets damp and we spend time in hotel rooms and in other people's beds.
While it helps to know why your allergies may kick up during the holidays, it's just as important to know what you can do to relieve symptoms -- or avoid triggers completely.
Hints to Help Control Holiday Allergies
Avoiding Mold and Mildew
Christmas trees and wreaths. While many people think it's the tree or other seasonal greens causing their holiday allergies, it's actually the mold spores on these plants. If mold is your nemesis, you may want to steer clear of fresh trees, boughs, and wreaths, says Chiu, and consider switching to artificial decorations. Or, to make live greenery less inclined to trigger allergies during the holidays, try hosing plants down before bringing them inside, to get rid of existing spores.
Artificial holiday decorations. While fake greenery can indeed help reduce allergy symptoms, "it can also get damp and grow mold, as well as accumulate dust," Chiu tells WebMD. To help keep holiday allergies to these under control, Chiu recommends storing artificial Christmas trees, ornaments, and other decorations in dry containers.
Handling Food Allergies
First, know yourself. Before you can manage holiday allergies to food, you must "know what foods you're sensitive to," says allergist Steven H. Cohen, MD, associate clinical professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. That may be milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, cashews, etc.), fish, shellfish, soy, or wheat -- eight foods that account for 90% of all food allergy reactions.
Then communicate. Once you know what you're allergic to, you need to talk about it -- especially during this season of celebration. That's because the first and best treatment for holiday food allergies is to avoid what you're allergic to, Cohen says, so communication is key. At seasonal gatherings with friends and family, tell them about your food allergies, ask about ingredients in meals and desserts, and solicit their help so you can avoid the foods you're allergic to.
Dodging Pet Dander
At home. You don't want to banish Fifi out in the cold during the holidays, so tame pet allergies by wash your hands and face frequently, keeping floors swept, and carpets vacuumed. While you can bathe pets to reduce dander, that's effective for only a few days. Keeping yourself scrubbed is a lot easier, more beneficial -- and keeps the peace with your pets!
On the road. The protein in pet dander that causes allergic reactions is so light it can be carried in the air or on clothes and hair -- which explains why you'll find dander in unlikely places like schools, workplaces, and pet-free homes. The best way to prepare yourself for pet allergies when away is to take allergy medications before visiting homes that have pets.
Dealing With Dust Mites
At home. Dust mites are well-known allergy and asthma triggers. When you're at home, keep symptoms in check by changing air filters frequently, washing bedding in hot water at least twice a month, and buying allergen-resistant covers for pillows and mattress. And because dust mites thrive in high humidity, think about using a humidifier/dehumidifier to keep indoor humidity between 30% and 50%.
On the road. When traveling, it's a good idea to take along your own pillow with an allergen-proof cover, or to request a down-free pillow if staying in a hotel or with friends, suggests the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Moderating With Medication
No matter how careful you are, you can still be exposed to holiday allergens and irritants. That's why it's important to carry your allergy medications with you, whether it's an antihistamine, inhaler, or EpiPen, says Chiu. And even when you don't have symptoms "remember to continue taking any medications your doctor has prescribed."
Steer Clear of Stress
It's well-known that stress can cause asthma to flare, but it may not do your allergies any good either, writes Kenneth Bock, MD, in Psychology Today. Bock maintains that one of the best ways to bolster your immune system -- so that it can more easily fend off allergy symptoms -- is to recognize the effects stress, anxiety, and other high emotions can have on your immunity, and then to steer clear. His suggestions? A little yoga, meditation, or message therapy. Think of these as holiday gifts to yourself, ones that give all year.
When to See a Doctor for Your Holiday Allergies
Controlling holiday allergies is much harder if you're still asking: Was it the walnut tarts at your uncle's party that gave you an allergic reaction? Or his sociable little poodle? Maybe it was the turkey gravy?
If you're not really sure what's triggering holiday allergies, it's probably time to see an allergist, a physician specially trained to diagnose and treat allergies.
Not only can an allergist help you discover what's causing your symptoms, they'll also help you manage, even prevent them -- in the summer, during the holidays, any time allergies strike.