Photo of family having thanksgiving dinnerThe holiday season means family gatherings and celebration of good tidings. In 2020, many holiday get-togethers were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Will the availability of COVID-19 vaccines — and more general awareness and precautions in place — help improve the 2021 holiday season?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released COVID-19 guidance for holiday family gatherings and traveling during the pandemic.

The best way to celebrate the holidays is to get vaccinated (if eligible) against COVID-19. Everyone 5 years of age and older is now eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccination. Widespread vaccination is a critical tool to help stop the pandemic. Check the websites of your state and local departments of health for information about vaccine availability in your area, or visit Vaccines.gov.

In addition to COVID-19, people with asthma and allergies have long approached holiday get-togethers with caution so they can avoid potential triggers. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa all present unique challenges for people with respiratory issues.

Here’s what you need to know about the level of COVID-19, asthma and allergies risk as you navigate the holiday season.

Is it safe to host or visit relatives and friends for the holidays during COVID-19?

If you and your family are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, then it’s safe to host or visit relatives and friends, CDC says.

Keep in mind it’s important to protect very young children — those who are under the age of 5 — who are not yet eligible for vaccination. Ensuring every person in attendance at a holiday gathering is vaccinated helps protect those who are not eligible for a shot.

For people who are NOT fully vaccinated, CDC recommends they delay their travel plans and/or not attend a holiday get-together. This is surely hard to accept, but attending a holiday gathering while unvaccinated could increase the chances of getting and possibly spreading COVID-19.

What precautions should you take if you decide to attend a holiday party or gathering?

  • If you are unvaccinated, wear a face mask, wash your hands and watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart from others) when possible, especially if you are indoors.
  • Even those who are vaccinated should wear a face mask in public indoor settings, especially in communities experiencing high COVID-19 transmission.
  • Be sure to safely store your face mask when eating and drinking.
  • Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Spend time outdoors if weather permits, especially if you are unvaccinated. In general, outdoors is safer than indoors in terms of COVID-19 transmission.
  • If you are sick or have symptoms, don’t host or attend a gathering.

If you are exposed to COVID-19 at a holiday gathering or you begin to feel show symptoms of COVID-19, quarantine yourself right away to protect others. It may be best to return home right away and get tested. Some pharmacies are selling rapid tests that you can take at home

Is it safe to stay overnight in the same residence with relatives during COVID-19?

If you are fully vaccinated and the family members you’re visiting are fully vaccinated, then yes — it is safe, CDC says.

Before you go, find out:

  • if you’re visiting a family member who is unvaccinated
  • if a family member is at higher risk of getting COVID-19
  • if a family member is at risk of getting severe illness from COVID-19

This knowledge will help you decide whether it’s safe to go and what precautions to take if you do go. Keep in mind that people who have a medical condition or take medications that weaken their immune system may not be fully protected — even if they are fully vaccinated and have received a booster dose.

If you’re unvaccinated and staying overnight, it is best to sleep in separate rooms and not in common areas. CDC recommends that unvaccinated people wear masks when inside the house, except when eating, drinking and sleeping, and stay at least 6 feet away from others when possible. Wash hands with soap and water often, especially right when you arrive. If weather permits, keep windows and doors open to increase air circulation. Spend time outdoors as much as possible.

What are some common asthma triggers during the holidays?

Holiday get-togethers can be more stressful than festive for families with asthma. All year long, you work hard to control asthma symptoms, carefully staying 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 with your health – or the health of your child.

Before the holidays, schedule an appointment with a doctor to review your or your child’s Asthma Action Plan so that you’re prepared for potential triggers and you know what medications to take to keep symptoms under control.

Here are some more tips for a safe holiday season with family:

  • Cigarette smoke is one of the most common asthma triggers. If family members smoke around you or a loved one with asthma, then it may be best not to celebrate the holidays with them.
  • Wood-burning fireplaces and scented candles or potpourri are irritants that can lead to asthma flares. Gas fireplaces with doors are better for people with asthma. It’s best to avoid places with scents of the season.
  • Respiratory viruses and cold air can worsen asthma symptoms. Because people tend to travel and socialize more around winter holidays, they’re more likely to be exposed to cold air and viruses that cause colds and flu. Although some contact is unavoidable, steer clear of people who are coughing, sneezing and sniffling. Don’t share food or drinks and try not to kiss someone who is sick.
  • Get the flu vaccine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends flu shot to everyone over 6 months of age. Getting a flu shot is even more important this year during the pandemic. The flu shot is an essential part of protecting your health and your family’s health.
  • 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.
  • Pace yourself. Be selective about which gatherings 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, focusing on the trunk. This 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, but 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 strategies for hosting or attending holiday parties if you or your child has food or latex allergies?

For many families, food is the centerpiece around holiday get-togethers. This is 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 wheat and eggs.
  • During Christmas, there’s egg nog 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 if you are planning to get together with others during the pandemic.

  • Ask about food allergies when the invitation is offered. Discuss 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.
  • Hold on to food labels for prepared meals so that food-allergic guests can check the ingredient list.
  • If a guest has a latex allergy, be mindful of household and celebratory products that have latex in them, such as balloons, adhesive bandages and gloves for food prep. In addition, some latex allergic people have cross-reactions to food such as bananas, avocados, chestnuts and kiwi.

Part of being aware of life-threatening allergies is being prepared for the unexpected. If a guest ends up having a life-threatening reaction, it is essential to administer an epinephrine auto-injector 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 that you “get it” and support their needs, for which they will be thankful.