Question of the Week

December 12, 2005


For many people, it's allergy season.

"Christmas greenery causes some people to hack and sneeze their way through each holiday season. However, it may not be the pine needles giving their sinuses grief. It‚s the mold hidden in the crevices of the tree bark that can cause an allergic reaction, according to Paul Stillwagon, a physician with the Asthma & Allergy Center of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Inc. ... Although Stillwagon believes his patients‚ symptoms are real, he is skeptical of the source. Stillwagon said that while it‚s possible to have an allergy to pine tree pollen, it‚s impossible to have symptoms during the Christmas season because pine trees only pollinate in the spring. Bark mold may not be the only culprit. 'As people are breaking out Christmas decorations, they may be rustling them around and breaking out stuff that's dusty and moldy,' Stillwagon said. 'So it may be the dust' giving people problems. He noted Christmas potpourri, perfumes, and scented candles may also be irritants. 'Don't jump to conclusions that it is automatically the tree,' Stillwagon said."

For those who still choose to have a tree, there are ways to reduce the allergens in the air.

"Commercially sold trees may also have been sprayed to help them stay green. This chemical spray may cause respiratory symptoms. Hosing down a live tree with water before bringing it in may help. Artificial trees and Christmas decorations are often dusty, and therefore a source of house dust mites. Artificial trees and decorations should be dusted outside before decorating the tree. Use a hand held hair dryer set on cool. After the tree has been decorated, a small room air filter can be used in the vicinity of the tree to keep down the dust in the air. A HEPA filter is recommended."

For those with allergies of any sort, this time of year is often more difficult. Even if they can avoid (or reduce) allergens in their own homes, people are visiting the homes of others and/ or attending holiday parties. Parties and other gatherings are also more likely to be indoors (due to the cold weather in much of the country). While it can be difficult (or even inappropriate) to ask someone else to hose down their tree or dust their ornaments, those with severe pet allergies may be able to reduce symptoms if they plan ahead.

"The approach to visiting households with pets for an allergic individual is to take appropriate precautions including administration of medications prior to visitation. Your allergist-immunologist can provide information on medications for your animal allergy, such as antihistamines, nasal sprays, decongestants or appropriate asthma medications. For patients who have severe symptoms on animal dander exposure, the pet should removed from the house at least day before the visit, and the host household should be cleansed of animal allergen to the extent practical."

And those with food allergies often have to be careful, go hungry, or eat before arriving.

"Holiday Eating: Resisting Temptation A recent survey of teens and young adults ages 13 to 21 revealed that 49% ate a risky food simply because it looked good and they wanted to eat it. With the holiday season, which (unfortunately) brings celebrations teeming with food, upon us, how can you strengthen your willpower to stay away from foods that could cause a reaction? The tips below may help.
* Respect your food allergy. Allergic reactions are serious business, and they can be fatal. No matter how good a food might look, remind yourself that it simply isn‚t worth the risk. It is true that just one little bite can cause an allergic reaction, and not all reactions can be 'toughed out.'
* Develop an eating plan and stick to it. Before holiday gatherings or other celebrations, mentally remind yourself what is off-limits to you. One study of peanut- and tree nut´┐Żallergic reactions in restaurants/food service establishments found that desserts were most commonly the culprit dish (43%).
* Get support from others. Seek out family and friends who are most understanding about your food allergy. Such people can make all the difference if you need a sympathetic ear or someone to simply help boost your willpower.
* Reward yourself. ... Once the food-intensive holidays are over, pat yourself on the back for a job well done and then treat yourself to something special. ... Remember--you are not alone. You can do it!"

"Get support from others."

If friends and family members know about the allergy, especially one which is potentially life-threatening, they are more able to be supportive and make appropriate accommodations.

"Teens with peanut allergies are in the highest risk group for a severe or fatal allergic reaction, according to the Food Allergy Network. That's because they may not be carrying medication, they may not recognize early symptoms, and they and their friends may not know what to do when a reaction occurs, causing a delay in getting help. ... Those who are allergic to peanuts must be vigilant about completely avoiding them. But avoiding peanuts altogether is easy to say and hard to do, Johnson said. 'It's one thing to avoid peanuts in your own home, but where you get in trouble is in the outside world -- in restaurants or in school cafeterias where they might be hidden traces of peanuts,' Johnson said. 'We know of one incident where someone had an allergic reaction from eating a cheese sandwich that was sliced in half using a knife that had also been used to slice a peanut butter sandwich.' Some people are so severely allergic to peanuts that just the aroma triggers an allergic reaction, Johnson said."

Questions of the Week:
As someone with allergies, what can you do to help increase the chances of having a safe and healthy holiday season for yourself? When planning to attend a gathering, party, or just be a guest in someone's home, how can you address the allergy issue with your host (or hostess)? What are your responsibilities as the one with the allergies? As one giving a party, planning a gathering, or simply inviting a friend over, what should you know about the allergies of any potential guests? How can you address the allergy issue with your guests? What are your responsibilities as a host (or hostess)?

What about those who do not have allergies, and are not planning to host anything anytime soon? What should you know about the allergies of your friends and family members? How can you support them and/ or help them be as safe as possible in a potentially unsafe situation? Would you know what to do if someone you knew (a friend, family member, or classmate) were to have a severe allergic reaction? What should you know, and what can you do?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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