The holidays are a time of celebration and a period when we can experience sensory overload in the best way. Bright lights, memorable songs and lots and lots of smells.
For many people, the smells of cinnamon- or pine-scented candles or a freshly cut tree evokes good memories. But for some people, those well-known aromas present a serious health risk.
Decorations that fill your home with holiday scents can jump-start nasal congestion, sneezing and a runny nose in just about anyone. But, the health risks are higher if you have asthma, says pulmonologist Katina Nicolacakis, MD.
The scented risk of asthma
According to the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, respiratory illnesses peak during the holidays. Research from the University of Washington also found roughly one-third of people with asthma have chemical hypersensitivity, and more than one-third reported irritation related to scented products.
These fragrances can be so strong for individuals with hypersensitivity to odors that they can irritate the respiratory system to the point of triggering an asthma attack.
“There are many patients for whom anything scented – candles, pine cones, right down to their live Christmas tree – will spark an asthma attack,” Dr. Nicolacakis says. “These are people who just can’t have scented things in their homes.”
However, there are things you can do to minimize your risk.
Lowering the holiday scent trigger point
Overall, Dr. Nicolacakis says, avoidance is key. But there are a number of other ways that you can protect yourself from potential asthma attacks in the flood of holiday scents.
- Avoid live trees. The dust and pollen clinging to individual evergreen needles are the culprits in sparking an asthma attack. Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology research revealed 70% of molds found on live trees can set off asthma, fatigue and sinus congestion. And, once inside the home, the mold count can spike fivefold within two weeks. “The reaction to trees is very individual,” Dr. Nicolacakis says. “There are also chemicals released when the wood is cut, and there are oils on the tree.”
- Avoid scented candles. Burning scented candles can release chemicals into the air, including toluene (a clear, flammable liquid found in petroleum) and benzene (a compound found in the air resulting from burning coal and oil emissions). The main issue is that scented candles don’t burn hot enough to destroy the dangerous molecules they spit out, and they’re often lit in unventilated areas. That combination raises the risk of an asthma attack, Dr. Nicolacakis says.
- Try an artificial tree. To avoid the live-tree scent, opt for an artificial tree. But, be sure it isn’t coated in spray-on snow, pine-scented sprays or oils. Spray-on snow includes a slew of chemicals, such as acetone and methylene chloride, that can bring on an asthma attack or other allergic reaction.
- Get a flu shot. If your risk for an asthma attack is moderate to severe, talk to your primary care physician about getting a flu shot. It could protect you from other illnesses that might increase your vulnerability to other asthma triggers.
- Be prepared. While guidelines around the current COVID-19 pandemic mean you won’t be encountering these scents at the home of friends or family, you still might come across them while running necessary errands like grocery shopping. To be prepared, Dr. Nicolacakis recommends you take any prescription medications and carry your rescue inhaler with you. The prior planning could be a big help if you’re exposed to any substances that irritate your lungs.
- Minimize your exposure. The only way to drive the asthma attack risk to as low as possible during the holidays, though, is to simply steer clear of anything that might upset your lungs, Dr. Nicolacakis says. Avoidance is the best precautionary measure you can take.