Updated 05 June 2017

Allergic to Christmas?

'Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry, but make sure you don't sniffle and sneeze your way through the holidays.

The festive season is a time for family, friends, food, gifts… and potential allergy flare-ups. Here are a few triggers, and ways to avoid them.

From the decorated trees to the Christmas stockings, fragrant candles and incense, the holidays have the potential to quickly become considerably less cheerful for people suffering from allergies and asthma

And there’s research to prove it.

Respiratory illnesses tend to flare up around 25 December, specifically one week before and one week after Christmas, for school children and adults, respectively. This is the result of research by Dr Lawrence Kurlandsky and colleagues from Upstate Medical University in New York, published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Although the American research focused primarily on the presence of fresh coniferous Christmas trees as a source of allergy flare-ups, they noted that a range of other festive items, such as candles, incense and wreaths, also served as triggers.

Read: Top 10 allergy triggers

Avoid these triggers

The good news is that Christmas doesn’t have to be nightmare for people with asthma and allergies, provided you know how to identify the triggers and take action.

Be cautious of the following common festive-season allergens:

1. Trees
The tree is definitely the centrepiece of the home at this time of year. But, beautiful as trees are, they can also cause allergies.

Take action: While fake trees may not deliver that lovely pine smell or create quite the same atmosphere as a real one, they’re a solution not to be sniffed at – especially if you found yourself sneezing and wheezing at previous festive celebrations. Spray the artificial tree down with a hose after unpacking, and allow it to air-dry before setting it up indoors.

2. Decorations
Your ornamental trinkets may have been collecting dust (and possibly mould while in storage for a year. If you’re allergic to dust mites and/or mould, you may find it hard to breathe, or you may experience asthma symptoms (e.g. wheezing, tightness in the chest and shortness of breath) when unpacking and hanging the decorations.

Take action: Before decking the halls with baubles, bells, glitter and angels, ask someone who doesn’t suffer from allergies or asthma to wipe down each item thoroughly. When it’s time to pack them away again, place the decorations in airtight containers and store them in a dry spot.

Read: Are your allergies out of control?

3. Scents
The holidays are awash with scents. Think pine-infused potpourri, cinnamon-scented candles, incense and room deodorisers . . . While these scents add to the cheer, they spell disaster for people with allergies. Candles, in particular, are an increasingly recognised source of indoor air pollution, notes Dr Nathanael Horne, a fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, in a Prevention Magazine interview.

Take action: Your own potpourri made of cinnamon sticks and cloves is a good alternative to artificial scents. Also look for less fragrant candles made from soy or beeswax – they’ll still add sparkle to your Christmas table. If you have asthma, avoid festive fires and barbecues, since the smoke and ash can trigger an asthma attack.

4. Foods
Delicious Christmas feasts, barbeques and picnics are the highlight of the season. But if you’re allergic to certain ingredients, your Christmas fun could lead to the doctor’s rooms. 

Take action: Don’t be afraid to ask what went into the foods you’re eating. Even though your sister-in-law went to a lot of trouble preparing a wonderful Christmas dinner, she may have used nuts, egg, milk, wheat or other allergens as ingredients. If possible, take your own food, or stick to the foods you can trust.

Read: Alcohol, allergies and asthma don't mix

5. Cocktails and drinks
Raising a glass in celebration of another great year? Festive drinks are as colourful as the season, but often contain sulphites. These preservatives are used in dried fruit, maraschino cherries, fruit juices, beer, cider and wine.

Take action: Sulphites can cause allergy-like symptoms in people with underlying asthma and hay fever, according to While there aren’t good tests for sulphite sensitivity, your reaction to dried fruit, which is high in sulphur-based preservatives, could be an indicator that it’s best to go slow on the sulphur-containing drinks this festive season. If you have other allergies, also note that traces of nuts may be present in speciality beers and seasonal ales, and that there may be milk in crème and chocolate liqueurs, as well as egg whites in frothy drinks.

Happy holidays!

Read more:
What are allergies?
Causes and symptoms of allergies
Preventing allergies

Image: Christmas tree and Christmas decorations from Shutterstock


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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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