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Allergic to the Holidays?

Seasonal triggers can spark reactions; here's help

MONDAY, Nov. 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- 'Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry, but allergy sufferers will most likely sniffle and sneeze their way through the holidays.

Seasonal triggers, including that beautiful seven-foot Christmas tree, can bring on allergies or allergy-like symptoms. But everyone can minimize exposure to holiday allergens without missing out on the merriment, experts say.

If you are allergy-prone, be aware of three problem areas around the holidays, said Dr. Gailen Marshall, an allergist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and Dr. Marianne Frieri, director of allergy and immunology at the Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y.

The main culprits, they agreed, are the tree, strong odors (think holiday potpourri) and foods with hidden ingredients.

If you react with sniffles or congestion to a fresh tree, it is probably your reaction to microscopic mold spores that reproduce on evergreen even when brought indoors, according to Marshall, a spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI).

The expert advice has always been to let your tree dry out on an enclosed porch or the garage before bringing it indoors. Shaking it can help, too, Marshall added.

If your tree lot doesn't have a shaking machine, you can do it yourself by tapping the trunk against the pavement. That's also a good way to find a fresh tree, Marshall said. "If it's dry, needles will fall off," he added.

The ride home can help reduce allergens, too. "Most people don't stick it in the back [of their vehicle] but on top," Marshall said. During the drive home, the breeze should rid the branches of more allergens.

If you put your tree in a container of water to keep it fresh, as advised, and then forget to change the water often, there may be more mold, Marshall said. "Change the water regularly, and only put the tree skirt over the bucket [which provides a dark environment and encourages mold growth] when company is coming," he said.

Have as much ventilation as possible once the tree is inside, he added.

Holiday odors, such as scented candles and potpourri, present more of an irritant problem than a true allergy, Frieri said. But the odors can trigger reactions in those with sensitive airways.

If you're the allergic type, the drier the potpourri the better, Marshall tells patients. Choose hanging potpourri rather than the type in the bowl, he advised.

Also watch out for foods, such as those served at holiday buffets and potlucks, that may have "hidden" ingredients, advised Frieri, who is also a spokeswoman for AAAAI.

Shellfish often show up in appetizers that don't look like they contain fish. And casseroles can hide many ingredients. "When in doubt, pass it by" remains the best advice.

Among the most common food allergies, according to the AAAAI, are wheat, eggs, milk, soy, fish or shellfish, legumes (especially peanuts), and nuts from trees such as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts.

More information

To learn more about holiday-related allergies, visit the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

SOURCES: Gailen Marshall, M.D., allergist, University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson; Marianne Frieri, M.D., Ph.D., allergist and immunologist, Nassau University Medical Center, East Meadow, N.Y., and professor, medicine, State University of New York at Stony Brook
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