8 Surprising Allergy Facts for the Holidays

in Food Allergy
Published: December 12, 2011

Some of our favorite winter things can also trigger reactions. Allergic Living gives the low-down on what to watch out for.


1. Scented Candles
The thought of cinnamon or vanilla wafting through the house may be appealing, but scented candles smell of big trouble for those with allergies or chemical sensitivities.

“People who have environmental allergies such as to pollen or pets develop very sensitive inflamed nasal tissue which is hyper-reactive,” explains Canadian allergist Dr. Antony Ham Pong. “These tissues then react more strongly to scents, and act as if they are allergens and mimic an allergic reaction.”

Plus, consider whether soy-allergic guests will be visiting before you light up that soy wax candle. While most are made from hydrogenated oil, which won’t cause an inhalant reaction, your soy-allergic guest or her child may feel uncomfortable knowing that a soy product is wafting through the air.

Advice: Use unscented, beeswax candles or opt instead for trendy fairy light strings for table décor or wreaths.

2. Festive Spores
If you have environmental allergies, a pine or cedar dominating the living room can bring you to sneezes and tears (or worse). Allergists warn at this time of year about “Rudolph the Reindeer Syndrome,” literally a reaction to the Christmas tree.

“Allergic reactions can occur to any pollen from the pine cones, or to mold in the bark of the tree,” Dr. Ham Pong notes. He says the tree’s resin can also cause “either eczema from contact with the skin, or nasal symptoms due to the scent.”

Mold is the biggest issue – some studies suggest household mold counts can increase as much as 10 times with a cut tree in the home. But an artificial tree can also harbor mold if it was stored in a damp basement.

Advice: Reduce the allergen load of a fresh-cut tree with a good blow-out – either taking it home on the roof of your car or subjecting it to a leaf blower on your front lawn. This gets rid of pollen grains and some mold. If mold is an asthma trigger, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America additionally suggests wiping around the tree’s trunk with a solution of 1 part bleach to 20 parts of lukewarm water. Also, wear gloves when moving a tree or boughs to avoid contact with the sap.

Or: Opt instead for a nice faux tree. Just be sure to enclose it plastic post-season, and store it in a dry spot.

3. Up in Smoke
Watch out for a roaring wood fire when visiting. As certified asthma educator Jo-Anne St. Vincent has explained in Allergic Living magazine, that can expose those with asthma or allergies to a variety of environmental triggers, including smoke and mold.

If visiting friends in a home with a trendy enclosed gas fireplace, that’s a safer bet. But even then don’t linger close by. Vincent says gas-burning fireplaces still emit nitrogen oxide, which can increase inflammation of the airways.

While manufactured fireplace logs used to be infamous for off-gassing toxic chemicals (since industrial waste was part of their composition), today these logs are much more environmentally friendly. There are still two problems though from an allergy/asthma perspective:

a) smoke, no matter how “green” still irritates sensitive airways.
b) Nut allergy concerns. Several brands make “crackling” fire logs, and they use walnut or other nut shells to achieve the sound while burning. It’s wise to avoid putting such proteins into the air around a nut-allergic individual.

Advice: Best of all is to ask close family to forgo the fire in the living room, if that’s to be the main party room.


4. Knit Softly
A sweater is a classic seasonal present. But watch which knit you pick. For instance, put one of those great “to look at” rough knits against sensitive skin and your gift recipient will be itching to get it off – now! And it’s not just the person with an allergy-prone hide: “Wool is the prickliest natural fiber known, as sheep hair has barbs,” says Dr. Ham Pong.

Many people get itching and redness when their skin is directly exposed to the fabric. For those with eczema, the effects are magnified. Related to wool is lanolin, which is made from sheep fat. The emollient can cause allergic contact dermatitis and eczema flare-ups.

Advice: Check labels carefully to avoid wools that bother your gift-getter. Or go upscale and purchase alpaca, which is highly allergy-friendly and gorgeous.

5. Bathing in Itch
There’s a woman on your gift list who you don’t know to well. Naturally, you head to the bath products because, what woman doesn’t love those? Well, that depends. If she has nut allergy, she won’t love you for the macadamia-based skin-care product.

If she has contact dermatitis or other skin sensitivity, Allergic Living columnist Dr. Sandra Skotnicki, a dermatologist, says to avoid fragranced products. She also counsels opting for facial and body soaps that are mild and unscented.

Dr. Skotnicki says: “Fragrance is still the number one cause of allergic contact dermatitis to toiletry products, with an incidence of about 4 per cent within the North American population.”

Advice: What smells great in the store can be highly irritating to the skin, and the airways for those with asthma. Look for unscented products rather than “hypoallergenic”. The latter is widely used, but many so-called “hypoallergenic” products contain fragrance.

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