Sneezin’s’ greetings: How to avoid holiday allergy triggers

By Andrew MacGinnitie, MD, PhD, associate clinical director of the Division of Immunology at Children’s Hospital Boston

The holidays are a lot of fun for children and adults alike, but for those with allergies and asthma the season can be a little difficult at times. Homemade treats, seasonal decorations and visiting friends and family can all be potential allergy and/or asthma triggers. Here are a few easy ways to avoid some of the more common offenders this winter.

Holiday food

Holiday celebrations are often filled with new and different foods. From plates of cookies to potlucks where everyone brings their favorite dish, this time of year presents plenty of opportunities for people with food allergies to be exposed to foods that could cause reactions. Peanuts and tree nuts in baked goods are the most obvious risks, but these same treats may also contain eggs or milk―common triggers for people with food allergies, especially younger children.

If your child has food allergies, make sure you know all ingredients in the food she eats over the holidays. Flickr/WasabiDoobie

For some families seafood and shellfish are a central part of the season. But helping your child avoid a plate of shrimp cocktail may not be enough to keep her safe; remember that seafood can be one ingredient of many in a recipe, and may be used in places you may not suspect, like stuffing.

We recommend that our patients only eat foods that they are 100-percent sure contain no items they are allergic to. Commercially made foods should be labeled with all the common allergens they contain, but that’s not true for homemade dishes. It’s best to always ask the chef about ingredients and to avoid any foods you aren’t certain about. Of course, patients who have self-injectable epinephrine, such as an EpiPen®, should always keep it handy.


Make sure decorations usually stored in basements and attics are cleaned so they don't bring dust, mold or other allergy triggers into your home. Image: Flickr/Skpy

Christmas trees, wreaths and other decorations made from trees and bushes can be a reservoir of allergy-triggering molds, especially if they are kept up a long time.  The molds can grow both on the needles and in the water (pollens from the tree are not an issue during the winter.) If you have a child with asthma, make sure holiday decorations from the outside are kept clean, and are hung for only a short period of time. If your child is especially sensitive to mold, artificial garlands, wreaths and trees may be a safer option.

In many families ornaments and other holiday decorations are passed down from generation to generation. This gives them a great deal of sentimental value, but can also make them a big source of dust mites and mold. This is especially true if the decorations spend the other 11 months of the year stored in a damp basement. To avoid a reaction, make sure decorations are cleaned at the beginning and end of each season and stored in an airtight container in the off-season.

Holiday visits

Andrew MacGinnitie, MD

When visiting with friends and family you may be sharing more than glad tidings and good cheer—holidays are also a prime time to spread dander and germs. If you have a family member who’s allergic to dogs or cats, you know that visiting a pet-friendly home over the holiday can be troublesome. In many cases the host may offer to put the animal in a separate room, or even outdoors for the duration of the visit. It’s a nice gesture—Fido may disagree—but unfortunately it’s not very effective. The allergenic dander lingers in the air and on furniture and carpets, so putting the pet in the basement or garage during the visit has no real benefit.  When visiting homes with animals, children with pet allergies should come prepared with their rescue inhalers, such as albuterol.

All this socializing and close contact can also help spread respiratory viruses, which are the most common cause of asthma exacerbation. Being aware of how much contact your child with asthma is having with large groups of people; making sure he is taking his regularly prescribed asthma medicines; and insisting on regular hand washing and use of antimicrobial hand cleaners―these are your best bets for preventing viral infections this time of year.

Is your child having a particularly tough time with allergies or asthma this winter? Call 617-355-6117 or 888-IWHEEZE to schedule an appointment with a Boston Children’s allergy specialist at a time and location that’s convenient for you.

To accommodate the needs of our patients, Boston Children’s allergy specialists are seeing patients in Weymouth, Peabody, Boston, Lexington and Waltham— offering the same world-class care you’ve come to expect from Boston Children’s, but in locations closer to your home.