Photo of family having thanksgiving dinnerIn normal times, the holiday season would mean family gatherings and celebration of good tidings, but 2020 is different due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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 their unique challenges. This year, COVID-19 is forcing many families to reconsider whether they should travel to visit relatives for the holidays or stay home with immediate family.

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID), says it’s understandable that a lot of us have “traditional, emotional warm feelings about the holidays and bringing a group of people, friends and family together” in a house indoors.

“If there are vulnerable people involved – the elderly or people with underlying conditions – you better consider whether you want to do that now or maybe just delay it and say, ‘You know, this is an unfortunate and unusual situation and I may not want to take the risk,’” Dr. Fauci says.

Here’s what you need to know about the level of COVID-19 risk when traveling during the holidays. Also included are tips for navigating the holidays for those with asthma and allergies.

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

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says traveling for the holidays can increase your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others, especially if you’re at risk for severe complications from COVID-19.

Consider virtual gatherings this year. Plan a small holiday meal for those who live in your home and then either set aside time for a Zoom call with relatives or host a virtual dinner with loved ones.

Deciding to visit relatives during the holidays is sure to be a difficult decision. Some questions you may have to ask yourself include: What is the safest mode of transportation? Where will you stay? Will you need to quarantine for two weeks after you arrive in a new state and/or when you return to your home state?

What precautions should you take if you go to a family holiday gathering?

Whether you choose to host or go to a holiday family gathering, CDC recommends that it be a small group and held outside if possible. Some other recommendations:

  • Bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils; ask guests to do the same if you’re the host.
  • Use single-use items such as disposable plates and utensils and condiment packets.
  • Avoid buffet style meals so there are no lines for food.
  • Wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart from others) when possible.
  • Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces between use.
  • Be sure to safely store your mask when eating and drinking.

Hosting or attending a large indoor gathering with people from outside of your immediate household is considered a high-risk activity, CDC says.

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 consider getting tested.

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

Before you go, you should decide whether the family member you’re visiting is at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, especially if it’s an elderly parent or someone with a compromised immune system.

Make sure you get the flu vaccine before you go – an essential part of protecting your health and your family’s health.

If you’re staying overnight, it is best to sleep in separate rooms and not in common areas. CDC recommends that you 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.
  • 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.