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Allergy

Updated 18 October 2019

5 things you could be allergic to over the festive season

From glitzy decorations to scrumptious food – the holiday season can have an adverse effect on those suffering from allergies. Here are the biggest culprits.

As we're heading into the festive season, you're probably getting the house ready for the celebrations, writing up shopping lists and planning for guests – but bear in mind that some of them might suffer from allergies.

The human body is a wonderful thing, but sometimes our immune system goes into overdrive when something is not "quite right". From seasonal respiratory allergies to food allergies, here are some triggers that you might need to look out for:

1. The Christmas tree (and all those decorations)

Sorry for being the Grinch, but if your artificial Christmas tree with baubles and tinsel is packed away for months, it can gather dust and mould – all triggers for respiratory allergies and asthma.

Do you prefer to use a real pine tree? While the tree itself might not necessarily cause allergies, its fragrance, pollen spores and possible mould might. According a study conducted in 2007, a Christmas tree in a room could increase the number of mould spores sixfold. A small sample of Christmas trees carried about 53 different strains of mould. According to Dr Kelly Rose from Allergy Partners, California, USA, this can cause all types of symptoms from an itchy, runny nose to coughing and sneezing.

What to do: Store artificial trees and decorations in a cool, dry place during the year and give them a good dusting outside before starting the decorating. If you're using a real tree, shake and rinse it before bringing it into the house.

Dad and daughter decorating Christmas tree

2. All the different types of food

Where do we start? With so many different traditions, the culinary assortment is vast and there can be loads to choose from. Unfortunately, for those who suffer from food allergies, things may end up not being so festive as they never know exactly what they're ingesting, especially at someone else's house. Nuts, eggs, cow’s milk, shellfish, wheat, soy and sesame allergies are among the most common food allergies.

What to do: Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask your hosts what will be on the menu – you are not being fussy, you're simply trying to avoid a potentially serious medical situation. Read the labels carefully when buying ready-made food and treats such as Christmas cake, mince pies, glazed ham and sweets as many of these contain common allergens. Make sure that your treatment is up to date and that you carry the necessary medicine or an epi-pen with you when visiting family or travelling.

If it’s your turn to host, be mindful of family members with food allergies. Ask beforehand and make sure that there are options for them. Also make sure their foods are not accidentally contaminated by any allergens.

Festive cookies

3. Your aunt’s cat (or dog)

Pet allergies are caused by their dander that can release dust and tiny bits of allergens into the air. These allergies are common and can cause watery, itchy eyes, coughing and sneezing.

According a previous Health24 article, cat allergies are more common than dog allergies. The reason for this is a specific protein found in cat hair. Cat allergies are triggered by the overreaction of the immune system to a protein called FEL d 1.

And while your own pets might not trigger your allergies, someone else's cat or dog could do so. 

What to do: Asking a relative to remove their pet from the scene might not be appreciated, so rather take your antihistamines well before the visit and wash your hands frequently, especially after handling any animals.

Hosts, be mindful of those with pet allergies by ensuring that rugs, carpets, couches and linen are cleaned properly. Make the guest room a pet-free zone if you have someone with allergies spending the night.

cat perching over table

4. Gifts

Never look a gift horse in the mouth but be careful of what you put in your mouth or on your skin if you don’t know the ingredients. From cosmetics and bath products, edible treats, soft toys and novelty items, the numbers of allergens are endless. Even wrapping paper or adhesive can cause an adverse reaction on the skin.

What to do: If you have a specific allergy and you receive a gift that might cause a flare-up (e.g. a scented candle, a bath product or chocolate-coated almonds), accept it politely but never use or eat anything without first checking the ingredients.

When you are buying gifts and you know someone has a skin allergy or hay fever, refrain from buying them cosmetics or fragranced products.

Man with unwanted gift

5. The sun (and everything that goes with it)

The festive season in the Southern Hemisphere is associated with long summer days around the pool or on the beach. But summer fun can turn into an uncomfortable nightmare if you have an allergic reaction to the sun – a very real condition. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a sensitivity to sunlight (photosensitivity) can cause your immune system to react and cause an allergic reaction, often with symptoms such as an itchy, painful rash or even hives. Other factors such as sunscreen or chlorinated water can also cause a skin reaction.

What to do: Stay out of direct sunlight if you are prone to photosensitivity. If you are taking any form of antibiotic, check whether this can make you sensitive to the sun. Stick to a brand of sunscreen that you are familiar with and won't cause an allergic skin reaction.

Family running on beach

Image credits: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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