For most families, putting up the decorations and tree leading up to Christmas is all part of the exciting lead up to the big day. But for someone like me, the start of the holidays can be the most dangerous time of the year. A few bits of tinsel and a decorative garland may seem harmless, but it could very well mean I’ll be spending December 25 in a hospital bed instead of opening presents with my family in the morning.
I suffer from severe asthma and Christmas trees and decorations are among my triggers. I only need to be exposed to a real tree for a few hours and I could have a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. It’s scary when it happens, not just for me but especially for my daughters Connie, seven, and Sophie, nine. The last thing they want to see at their favorite time of year is their mother being rushed to the hospital gasping for breath with an oxygen mask on her face.
As a child I often had asthma attacks around Christmas. It didn’t take my parents long to realize that it was the real Christmas tree they put up every year. I was allergic to the mold and pollen spores on it.
They switched to using an artificial tree and because I was usually in bed when they put it up, and the number of asthma attacks I had dropped, I assumed that when it came to putting up my own artificial tree I fine. What I wasn’t aware of was that the dust that can accumulate on fake trees and other decorations like baubles and tinsel can also be a trigger.
It was December 19, 2014 when I had another asthma attack and had to be rushed to the hospital and put on a ventilator. It was a terrifying experience. Although I had tried to control my breathing with my inhaler at home, it didn’t work. No matter how many of these attacks you go through as a person with asthma, it is equally frightening every time.
I would attribute it to the stress of getting everything ready for Christmas and rushing too much. But the next year it happened again around the same time. At one point, five years in a row around Christmas, I ended up in the hospital with an asthma attack. In fact, in 2019 I was in the hospital on Christmas Eve because I was so sick and wasn’t even sure if I would be discharged in time to go home the next morning.
I was stunned. These attacks seemed to happen on or around December 19 every year and I couldn’t figure out why. Only when my advisor asked me about my Christmas decorations, and especially my artificial Christmas tree, did the penny drop. He explained that while artificial trees can be a good alternative to real trees for allergy sufferers, the dust that builds up on them — and other decorations — can also trigger asthma attacks. Not only while they were in storage, but also during the weeks that they were used up. It made sense.
The following year, my husband Malcolm put up our tree a few days before Christmas Day, making sure to shake it out in the garden first and that I wasn’t in the living room when he built it. He also wiped off all the baubles and we got rid of the tinsel as it was not possible to clean properly. I discovered I was also allergic to pine cones, so we hung our usual garland outside the front door instead of over the fireplace and I made sure not to touch it when I went inside.
There are so many other things I also need to be aware of, such as making sure gifts coming into the house are not from a home that has pets, as animal dander can also trigger my asthma. Of course I could play it safe and have no tree or decorations at all, but that wouldn’t be fair to the girls, who both love Christmas. And despite my condition, I do.
So now we keep decorations to a minimum, keep them for only a few days, and make sure they are properly packaged in airtight containers each year. Luckily it has worked so far. Having asthma doesn’t mean you have to cancel Christmas or that you can’t enjoy it. It’s just that you may need to make a few adjustments to make sure you stay safe and well ahead of the big day.
For more information on how to stay healthy this Christmas, Asthma + Lung UK has advice on their website. If you are concerned about your lung condition or symptoms and need to talk to someone, you can call the Asthma + Lung UK’s Helpline team on 0300 222 5800 (Monday-Friday 9am-5pm).