If you’re a Christmas lover like I am, you’re probably excited for all of the things the holiday brings—that sense of December magic, gifts, family togetherness, delicious food, and, depending on where you live in the country, maybe even a dusting of snow. But sadly, it’s not unusual for allergies to put a damper on the season.
“What?” you may ask. “Didn’t allergies go away with fall weather?”
While most fall pollens die down when the cold sets in, other allergens can stir up symptoms in December. Here’s a look at some of the most troublesome holiday allergens and ideas for minimizing their effects in your life.
Dust mites. Ever found yourself sneezing while dusting the furniture or pulling an old dust-covered Christmas decoration out of the attic? What you’re really reacting to are the dust mites that live among the house dust, feeding on dead skin cells. You won’t be able to see them unless you have a microscope, but they abound in carpet, bedding, and on upholstered furniture. And while dust mites are in your house year-round, people tend to have greater exposure to them in winter when they’re cooped up indoors. In addition, forced air from furnaces can circulate the dust-filled air.
Dust can lead to the usual hay fever-type symptoms (sneezing, a runny or stuffed up nose, etc.), itchy watery eyes, coughing, wheezing, and even ongoing sinus infections and asthma.
Avoidance: One of the best things you can do is to reduce humidity in your house. Dust mites love humidity so aim to keep levels below 50 percent. You can also use allergen-free bed covers and wash your sheets frequently. If you have a lot of carpet in your home, consider removing it and replacing it with a hard finish (wood, laminate, tile, etc.) Vacuum frequently and use HEPA filters.
Christmas tree. You know that beautiful symbol of the season lighting up your living room? It could be part of your seasonal misery. While Christmas trees aren’t big pollinators on their own, they can be coated with the pollens of other trees from the forest. They can also pick up molds that are common in the outdoors in winter. And before you decide that fake trees are the solution, note that they can bring their own problems. If they’re not stored properly, they can accumulate dust or mold from their storage environment (attic, basement, etc.)
Avoidance: If it’s important to you to have a tree straight from the forest, see if the vendor can shake it before you load it into your car. (Most lots will have shaking machines that can get the debris off.) You can also hose it off when you get home to remove residual pollen or mold. If you have a fake tree, make sure to store it in an air-tight bag to keep it from gathering dust and mold. The same goes for garlands and wreaths. Rinse them off with the garden hose before setting them up for the season.
Another option is a different kind of Christmas tree altogether. There are some great looking Christmas tree alternatives available in repurposed wood and cardboard. Both look chic and stylish and are easy on the environment.
Pollen. Trees usually pollinate in spring, but warm weather can trigger pollination earlier. In temperate parts of the country, such as Texas, the mountain cedar tree is famous for causing untold amounts of misery beginning in December. Many Christmases have been sullied by this prolific Texas pollinator, which can lead to itchy and swollen eyes, non-stop sneezing, and a nose that won’t stop running.
Avoidance: HEPA filters can help as well as minimizing your time outdoors, but pollen is pretty difficult to avoid. Over-the-counter allergy medications may be enough to take the edge of your symptoms until the pollens subside.
Mold. Because there tends to be a lot of precipitation in winter, mold can thrive.
A hard freeze may cause the mold to go dormant, but it can revive with a return to warmer weather. Watch for mold inside of your home as well. Because people tend to stay cooped up in winter, there is often less ventilation in a home, which can contribute to mold growth—especially in high-humidity areas such as the basement or bathroom.
Avoidance: Stay inside when mold counts are high. Remove piles of leaves in the yard that encourage mold growth, and wear a mask if you are raking leaves. Inside, you should run a dehumidifier to keep indoor humidity low (ideally between 30 and 50 percent). Fix leaks quickly, and keep air circulating in the house with the help of central air and fans.
Cold urticaria (hives). While not very common, some people can break out in big red welts when their skin is exposed to cold weather.
Avoidance: Naturally, you should avoid exposure to cold weather if this is your problem. For some people, this condition can also be triggered by getting in a cold shower or drinking cold liquids, so you should avoid these things as well. Antihistamines can help control this inflammation, but you should talk to your doctor if the problem doesn’t go away. In some cases, people may experience throat inflammation and may need an epinephrine auto-injector so that their airways don’t close off.
Food. Food abounds at Christmas, and if you’re prone to food allergies, you may find yourself feeling more vulnerable than usual to a reaction. Holiday parties may expose you to foods that have allergenic ingredients that you didn’t anticipate (think nuts hidden in the cheese log). And even if you do know what you’re dealing with, you may find it hard to resist holiday foods that you love but could elicit an allergic reaction. (“Is one glass of eggnog really going to trigger my dairy allergy?”)
Avoidance: Stay away from foods with unfamiliar ingredients. If you have multiple allergies, consider eating before a party and staying away from the food table altogether to avoid temptation. If you’re going to dinner at a friend’s home, communicate with them about your allergies and offer to bring a “safe” dish that you can enjoy. And if you’re prone to anaphylactic reaction, always keep two epinephrine auto-injectors with you just in case.
If your winter allergies are putting a significant damper on your quality of life or you notice that December habitually kicks up your allergy symptoms, talk to your doctor. Allergy treatment may sound like a big deal, but now there are convenient alternative such as sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT).
SLIT works a lot like shots, desensitizing you to the allergens that once made you miserable. However, SLIT is administered through pain-free, under-the-tongue droplets that are safer than shots and can be administered at home. They provide a hassle-free, natural allergy treatment that can curb winter allergies once and for all.