For people with asthma and allergies, the holidays present health challenges unique to the winter season. Busier-than-usual social schedules, chilly weather and cherished family customs combined make staying healthy a daily priority for people with asthma and allergy.
Surviving—and enjoying—the holidays is easier when you plan ahead and take preventive action. Here are some tips to help you plan for the holidays so that you'll look back on this season with joy instead of relief.
Food Allergies: How to Plan
From Halloween through New Year's day, the holidays are filled with foods to be avoided by people with food allergies. Children, especially, need to be protected from certain candies and foods that cause allergic reactions. Inform family members and friends of special diet restrictions so that there will be plenty of "safe" food to eat at holiday get-togethers. Prepare allergy-free snacks and meals in advance; freeze or store as much food as possible so that busy work and school schedules don't erode healthy eating habits.
Eating away from home requires advance planning to prevent potential allergic reactions. Take time to check restaurant menus before eating out. Call the hostess or manager and have them help you identify menu items the allergic person can safely eat. Offer to bring allergen-free dishes that complement meals hosted by friends or relatives to make sure that everyone enjoys these special events.
If you or a family member have food allergies, have an epinephrine injection kit with you at all times because this busy season includes events, which almost always feature food too tempting to resist. (See the Asthma and Allergy Answer factsheet on, "What is Anaphylaxis.")
Outdoor Mold Allergies Can be a Problem this Season
From raking wet leaves to choosing logs for the fireplace, allergy sufferers need to be prepared. Be sure to remove wet dirt and leaves from around the foundation and gutters of your house to prevent outdoor mold from accumulating near windows and doors. Stack all firewood outside, bringing new logs in only for immediate use in your fireplace or wood-burning stove.
Ideally, someone without outdoor mold allergy should perform outdoor activities where mold poses a threat. If you have to perform these chores, be sure to dress appropriately (i.e., wearing protective items such as gloves, face mask, etc.) and keep preventive and or/treatment medication readily available.
Mold can also flourish indoors if the humidity is too high. When the heat is on, check humidity levels in those rooms where you'll spend most of your time, including bathrooms and basement living areas. Keep indoor humidity below 50 percent, as long as you're comfortable and allergy symptoms are minimal. Consider a dehumidifier, if necessary. (See Asthma and Allergy Answer factsheet on, "Mold Allergy.")
Cold Weather and Asthma
The cold, too, can be less than delightful for people with asthma. Warm and humidify winter winds before they enter your lungs by wearing a scarf or muffler over your face. If these don't protect against asthma episodes, consider buying a warming mask, available at most medical supply stores.
If you regularly work, play or exercise outdoors, you may need medication to prevent asthma caused by cold-weather activity. With the help of your physician, identify the best preventive medication for your condition and have an adequate supply on hand. Use this preventive medication at least 15 to 30 minutes before heading outdoors.
Indoor Air Quality
Everyone spends more time indoors during the winter months. It is important to be aware of your indoor air quality. You may consider cleaning your chimney before that first holiday fire and be sure the fireplace flue works properly. Check fireplace vents and keep fireplace doors closed to eliminate as much smoke as possible. Replace fireplace screens with a door.
If you use a wood-burning stove, talk with your allergist or family physician about ways to reduce irritants caused by smoldering embers and other combustible materials.
Decorations and ornaments stored in the attic, basement, or garage can become coated with dust and mold. Proper storage is the key to making future festivities fun instead of frustrating. Thoroughly clean and dry all decorations, seal them in plastic bags and store the bagged items in airtight containers or clean boxes.
If you are extremely sensitive to dust and mold, consider buying a dust mask to wear over your nose and mouth. For about $16, a very good mask can be purchased from most medical supply stores (make sure it fits firmly around your face).
Heating vents can blow accumulated dust and debris throughout your home. Clean or replace filters in your furnace before turning your home heating system on. Pay special attention to any attached humidifiers. Placing a nonflammable filtering material (such as cheesecloth) over heating vents can help catch dust particles. Check and replace such homemade filters frequently.
Inspect the filters in any portable air cleaners you plan to use and clean or replace them as necessary. Running air cleaners at the highest setting during winter months can help reduce allergic reactions to dander and mold. (See the Asthma and Allergy Answer factsheet on, "Indoor Air Quality.")
Other Tips for the Holidays
If a live evergreen tree is a tradition you cannot live without, the following tips should help make this year's tree a treasure rather than trouble. Wipe the trunk thoroughly with a solution of luke warm water and diluted bleach (1 part bleach to 20 parts water) to eliminate any mold. Some evergreens, particularly junipers and cedar, may be pollinating even in winter look for a yellowish tinge on the trunk and needles. Before bringing the tree inside, use a leaf blower (in a well-ventilated area away from the house or garage) to remove visible pollen grains.
Artificial Christmas trees are suitable substitutes for live trees as long as they're not coated with sprayed-on "snow." Such additions (including pine-scented sprays or oils) can aggravate asthmatic or allergic symptoms in some people.
When visiting family or friends, be prepared for possible reactions to everything, from pets to food to perfume. Never leave home without the appropriate medication(s), equipment, and a written action plan so that the proper steps can be taken in case of an emergency.
Limit (or eliminate) scented candles, potpourri, air fresheners, plant arrangements and holiday baking with strong odors that can cause discomfort for people with asthma.
If you or another family member has moderate or severe asthma, ask your physician about the need for a flu shot. Your physician may recommend that everyone in the family be immunized to protect the more vulnerable family member (particularly if that member is a child with asthma or allergy).
Respiratory infections such as chicken pox, colds and the flu abound this time of year, and children are particularly susceptible. Children with asthma receiving regular steroid therapy should be carefully monitored, because chicken pox can be a serious illness for a child on steroids.
If asthma symptoms persist throughout the season, consider purchasing a peak flow meter to help monitor changes in the airways. You and your doctor can develop a written action plan for medication based on the meter's readings and keep it with you at all times. Highlight your physician's name and phone number for quick reference in case of an emergency. (See the Asthma and Allergy Answers fact sheet on, "Peak Flow Meters.")
At any time of the year, it's a good idea to develop a written asthma or allergy action plan, prepared with the help of your physician. This plan can be used to monitor symptoms and prevent attacks at home, work, school or on vacation.
SOURCE: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care. First created 1995; fully updated 1998; most recently updated 2005.
© Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) Editorial Board