There is an increasing understanding that items traditionally associated with Christmas can result in allergies and misery for a significant number of people.
The main area of concern is the focal point of an living room at this time of year - the Christmas tree. Studies have established that a major cause of allergies to Christmas trees are caused by mold and the mold spores released into the indoor air when the tree is brought into the home.
One study found that after having a Christmas tree in the home for two weeks, certainly a typical amount of time, the mold spore count in the air had shot up to 10 times what it was prior to moving the tree in.
The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) estimates that 10 per cent of the American population are allergic to mold and that at least half of these people suffer symptoms similar to hayfever such as a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes and headache. Unfortunately many people just assume they have a cold or mild case of the flu. Mold allerguies can also exacerbate asthma so you should talk to your doctor right away if you are asthmatic.
Luckily mold allergy can be tested for (although this isn't foolproof) so if you suspect mold allergy or repeatedly develop hayfever-like symptoms at Christmas when you have a Christmas tree in the home see your doctor. If you do have an allergy you can take simple steps like buying a tree that has been stored inside in dry conditions and go for a smaller tree. If that doesn't help then an artificial tree might be the only option.
The Telegraph newspaper in the UK this week reported on a woman who was allergic to Christmas trees, not because of mold, but due to a rare allergy to sap contained in pine needles. She is quoted as saying "From the moment the first Christmas trees went up in the shops, I'd plunge into what felt like a constant flu. Even on Christmas Day I found it impossible to feel excited about opening presents and would sneeze and cough and blow my nose throughout dinner." She had the allergy confirmed by her doctor and has now switched to an artificial tree and can enjoy the festivities of Christmas once again.
Classical allergies mediated by IgE antibodies and with hayfever-like symptoms are not the only problems caused by Christmas trees however. They give over volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as terpines and nowadays trees are even sprayed with artificial pine fragrances, particularly in the US. This can be a nightmare for those suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition in which even minute amounts of VOCs, both synthetic and natural, can trigger a wide range of symptoms typically including neurological signs such as dizziness, weakness, confusion, palpitations and headaches, as well as respiratory symptoms including shortness of breath and irritation of the airways. Allergic symptoms may also be present including hayfever and atopic dermatitis.
Of course the Christmas tree is not the only source of danger for the allergic individual at Christmas time. Food is a major issue with so much temptation constantly laid out it can be hard for sufferers to resist, particularly since so much of the food contains the major allergens. Bowls of peanuts are often laid out around the room for guests to nibble on while any number of foods contain wheat/gluten and dairy from turkey 'stuffing' and 'pigs in blankets' in the UK to eggnog in the US and Canada.
The key then to having an enjoyable Christmas is getting any allergies diagnosed and taking steps to avoid your triggers and also making your hosts aware of these. Alternatively being the host yourself means you can be sure nothing will cause you problems. You don't have to be 'allergic to christmas'
The Environmental Illness Resource wishes you a happy and allergy-free Christmas!
The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM)
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