If your child’s rendition of “dashing through the snow” sounds more like, “wheezing through the snow,” you know the holidays are here. It’s that time of year again, when parents drag dusty decorations out of the basement, plop live trees laden with last summer’s mold and pollen in the middle of the living room-, and surprise their kids with a new kitten or puppy on Christmas morning. All in all, the holidays are a cornucopia of asthma triggers for children.
"Each individual's asthma triggers differ," says Kristy Miller, a spokesperson for the Environment Protection Agency. "However, from an indoor environmental perspective, the primary asthma triggers include secondhand smoke, pet dander, mold, dust mites, and pest droppings. During the winter months, many people spend more time indoors, so steps should be taken to reduce or eliminate exposures to these environmental asthma triggers."
How can you help your children ring in the holidays on an asthma-free note? WebMD turned to the experts for advice on how to avoid the most common holiday asthma triggers for kids, so the whole family can enjoy a winter wonderland of festivities --with not a symptom in sight.
Asthma Triggers: Be Wary of Holiday Bugs
No, not the kind with wings, but respiratory infections, which run rampant during the cold winter months – particularly during the holidays, when families travel over the river and through the snow, with millions of other sneezing and coughing merry-makers.
“Asthma flair-ups are frequently due to infections,” says Richard Honsinger, MD, of the Los Alamos Medical Care Clinic. “And during the holidays, we see an increased number of respiratory infections with all the traveling and with people sharing their bugs that cause asthma symptoms to worsen.”
How can respiratory infections be avoided in your kids? Your first option is to stay home during the holidays, and your second is to make sure your kids wash their hands--a lot. Proper hand washing--a good scrubbing with warm water and soap for at least 15 seconds--can reduce the number of germs your kids pick up over the course of the day, which in turn helps lowers the risk of catching a cold and triggering asthma.
Asthma Triggers: The Culprits are Fido and Fluffy -
Giving your child a puppy or kitten for Christmas sounds like an enchanting idea, but don’t forget that that adorable little bundle is covered in dander--a common asthma trigger.
“Parents get their kids a new dog for Christmas, when they don’t know if the kids are allergic or not,” says Honsinger, who is a professor of clinical medicine at the University of New Mexico. “It’s a time of year when its cold, so pets are indoors more often than not, so their dander is inside as well and we see an influx of pet allergies and asthma symptoms.”
Asthma Triggers: Oh, Christmas Tree
While a tree in and of itself might not trigger an asthma attack, what’s on it certainly could.
“Christmas trees usually have leftover mold on them, or pollen, and many people with asthma have an increased difficulty breathing when you bring a live tree in the house and you warm it up,” says Honsinger.
And then there are the decorations--the dusty, dirty decorations that have been sitting in the basement for 11 months.
“People get all their ornaments out of their basements and closets and they’re covered in dust,” Honsinger tells WebMD.
The Christmas tree all lit up with warm lights and decorated with old bulbs is a perfect recipe for asthma trouble in kids, so wipe it down with a damp cloth before you set it up in the middle of your living room to remove outdoor allergens. Before you drag your holiday storage containers out of the basement, give them a good dusting so they’re free of mites, pest droppings and other unpleasant holiday treats, and wash decorations before you put them on the tree.
Asthma Triggers: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
While it sounds like a nice place for your child to cozy up after a big holiday feast, fireplaces can trigger asthma.
“Fireplaces and stoves and things that leak smoke are things that increase the asthma response,” says Honsinger. “It’s not a true allergy--you can’t test for smoke allergies on the skin--but we know that particulate matter or burning material in the air causes an increase in asthma symptoms.”
Particulate matter can also mean exhaust and cigarette smoke, explains Honsinger. So before you set off to visit grandma who still smokes two packs a day, remember to pack your child’s medicine – and be prepared to head home early if asthma symptoms flare up.
Asthma Triggers: Baby It’s Cold Outside
When the snow falls and the temperature drops, your child will be eager to go outside and play. But don’t forget that cold air is a known asthma trigger.
“We know that breathing cold, dry air will increase asthma symptoms,” says Honsinger. “It excites the receptors in the lung causing asthma to come on quickly.”
Cold air dries the lungs out, and makes the chest tighten, explains Honsinger. Warm, moist air, however, is just what a kid with asthma needs.
“During cold weather have your child wear a scarf when he’s outside,” says Honsinger. ”They breath through the cloth and it catches moisture. Then they breath back in through it and it warms the air and makes the air moist. Then they’re less likely to get that feeling of tightness.”
To be on the safe side, if your child is playing outside, monitor her peak flow every hour or so.
“Use a peak flow meter so you can see how fast your child’s air is coming out,” says Honsinger. “Use a set of guidelines that you set up with your physician, so if the peak flow drops below a certain level, use medicine. If it drops further, you better seek help. It’s something to watch.”
Be Ready for Any Asthma Trigger
Don’t forget that your pediatrician’s office and your local pharmacy may have an irregular schedule over the holidays. Make sure you are ready, in case your child has asthma symptoms..
“If your child has asthma, have your medicine supply intact over the holidays when everything closes down,” says Honsinger. “If your child uses an inhaler or a nebulizer, make sure you have these on hand, so if asthma symptoms flare up in the middle of Christmas, you have something at home to start treatment right away.”