For most people, the holiday season means family gatherings and celebration of good tidings. It also means people with asthma and allergies must avoid potential triggers during holiday get-togethers. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa each present challenges for people with respiratory issues.

Holiday traditions are important for many people. Using prevention strategies, you can protect your health and enjoy safe holidays and travel. Here’s what you need to know to safely navigate the holiday season.

What are some common asthma triggers during the holidays?

For people with asthma, the holidays can be more stressful than festive. All year long, you work hard to control asthma symptoms. You carefully stay away from allergens and irritants that take your breath away. Now you face a full plate of family traditions and personal habits that threaten to wreak havoc on your health – or the health of your child.

Before the holidays, schedule an appointment with your doctor to review your or your child’s Asthma Action Plan. It’s important to be prepared for potential triggers and know what medications to use to control symptoms.

Here are some holiday-related asthma triggers and safety tips:

  • Cigarette smoke is one of the most common asthma triggers. If family members smoke during the holiday gathering, keep your distance from them while they’re smoking and afterwards. If you have severe asthma, it may be best to not go at all.
  • Wood-burning fireplaces and scented candles or potpourri are irritants that can lead to asthma attacks. Gas fireplaces with doors are better for people with asthma. It’s best to avoid places with scents of the season.
  • Cold, dry air can trigger asthma symptoms. When someone with asthma breathes in cold, dry air, it can make the muscles spasm while also trying to keep airways open. This irritates the lining of the airways and causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
  • Respiratory viruses can worsen asthma symptoms. Because people travel and socialize more around winter holidays, they are more likely to be exposed to viruses. Although some contact is unavoidable, try to steer clear of people who are coughing, sneezing and sniffling. Don’t share food or drinks and avoid kissing someone who is sick.
  • Get the flu vaccine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the flu shot to everyone over 6 months of age. The flu vaccine is an essential part of protecting your health and your family’s health.
  • Get the COVID-19 vaccine and/or booster. People with moderate to severe asthma are at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness.
  • If you are allergic to dog or cat dander, you may need to pre-treat your asthma before you arrive. Ask the host if the pet can stay in another part of the house while you’re there.
  • Take all your medications with you when traveling. These include an albuterol quick-relief inhaler and your daily asthma controller inhaler.
  • Pace yourself during the holidays. Be selective about which parties you’re going to attend and get plenty of rest during the holiday season.

Can Christmas trees cause asthma and allergy symptoms?

When you bring your Christmas tree home, first wash it outside with a garden hose. Focus on the trunk. Washing it helps remove mold spores, pollen and terpene, an allergenic substance found in the sap of trees.

Bring the tree inside once it’s fully dry. Keep in mind the piney fragrance of the tree may irritate some people with asthma and allergies.

If you use an artificial tree, make sure it’s free of dust from storage.

What are some tips for holiday parties if you or your child have food allergies?

Food is often a centerpiece around holiday get-togethers. This presents a challenge for people with food allergies. Think about how many holiday meals contain common allergens:

  • A self-basting Thanksgiving turkey may have dairy, soy and wheat.
  • Stuffing usually contains wheat and mashed potatoes may be made with milk.
  • Pies may contain nuts in addition to wheat and eggs.
  • During Christmas, there’s eggnog and countless cookies that may contain eggs, nuts and dairy.
  • Hanukkah fare may include egg- and dairy-based foods such as challah bread and latkes.

Whether you’re hosting a holiday gathering or going to one, it’s important to understand the seriousness of food allergies. If guests say they are unable to eat something, it is a necessity, not a choice.

Here are some tips to help you manage food allergies during the holidays:

  • Bring up food allergies when the invitation is offered. Ask about the menu, including ingredients, and ask for preparation and serving suggestions. If there’s no acceptable food for you or your child to eat, it may be best to bring your own meal or snacks.
  • Prevent cross-contact of allergens from one dish to another when preparing or serving foods. Keep dishes that contain allergens separate from allergen-free dishes. Label each dish to clearly identify it.
  • If serving a buffet, encourage those with food allergies to serve themselves first. Also, be sure to label all ingredients and have a separate serving spoon for each dish.
  • Don’t share or offer food to children other than your own. Encourage your child to not share food with other children.
  • Hold on to food labels for prepared meals so that food-allergic guests can check the ingredient list.

Part of being aware of life-threatening allergies is being prepared for the unexpected. If a guest has a life-threatening reaction, it is essential to administer epinephrine immediately and call 911.

Accidental exposures happen. But by implementing these strategies, you can reduce the potential for accidental exposures and make all your guests feel welcome. They’ll know you “get it” and support their needs, for which they will be thankful.

Photo of family having thanksgiving dinner

How can I prevent latex allergy reactions during holiday parties?

When hosting or going to holiday gatherings, be mindful of household and celebratory products that are made with latex. Common items such as balloons and rubber bands can cause a latex allergy reaction. Instead of balloons, alternative decorations include:

  • Large banners or flags
  • Handmade posters
  • Paper chains
  • Garland or bunting
  • Streamers
  • Paper pompoms
  • Confetti

The brilliant red poinsettia plant is one of the most common latex-producing plants in the world. It is often used to adorn homes for the holidays. The latex is not released until there’s a broken leaf or the plant is broken in some manner. When the leaves or stems are broken, it releases a milky white substance. When touched, this can cause a reaction in latex-allergic people. If you have a latex allergy, it’s best to avoid these plants.

Some people with latex allergy can have latex cross-reactions to certain fruits and vegetables. This occurs because the proteins in these foods are similar to those found in the rubber tree plant. Latex cross-reactive foods include bananas, avocados, chestnuts and kiwi.

What are some COVID-19 precautions for family gatherings or holiday parties?

Anytime you get together in a group of people, there is a risk of spreading or catching COVID-19. Before hosting or going to a family get-together or party, CDC recommends you monitor COVID-19 cases in your area. If COVID-19 cases are low or moderate, then it’s reasonably safe to get together in a group. If cases are high, then it may be best to not go, or wear a face mask when in a group.

Do not attend a party or gathering if you have suspected or confirmed COVID-19. CDC recommends you isolate yourself from others.

The best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 – especially severe illness – is to get vaccinated. Everyone 6 months of age and older is eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine and booster. Widespread vaccination is a critical tool in reducing COVID-19 cases. High levels of immunity and the availability of COVID-19 vaccines have reduced the risk for severe illness and death for many people.

If you think you were exposed to COVID-19 at a holiday get-together or you start to show symptoms, quarantine yourself right away to protect others. It may be best to return home and get tested. Most pharmacies sell rapid tests that you can take at home.