A woman who is so allergic to the smell of Christmas that she almost died after a festive trip to a garden centre sparked a near-fatal asthma attack has revealed how lockdown has made it easier for her to avoid triggers.
Now 58, Anne Murray, who lives near Lanark, Scotland, has been allergic to traditional Yuletide spices like citrus and cinnamon – and has had to avoid mince pies which contain orange peel since she was a child.
Even the briefest exposure to them could spark her asthma – a condition which claimed the life of her mum, Mary, as well as her childhood best friend, who died at just 18.
Anne (Collect/PA Real Life)
This time of year, as the nation strings up decorations and feasts on mince pies and mulled wine, can be particularly dangerous for Anne – one of the few people who welcomes the Tier 3 Covid restrictions her area is living under.
Engineer Anne, who lives alone, says that the measures not only lower the risk of her exposure to Covid-19, but also to the festive fragrances which could kill her.
She explained: “I’ve hardly left my home since the national lockdown was first announced earlier this year, so it has been easier to avoid triggers.
The doctor took one look at me and told the staff to call an ambulance
“I’ve always been allergic to citrus, so whether it is just that, or the combination of the citrus with Christmas spices like cinnamon and cloves triggering my asthma, I don’t know – but I don’t take the risk.
“I do my Christmas shopping online and all my family and friends understand that if I get even a whiff of something that could trigger an attack, I’m out of the door.
“I tell everyone, ‘If I can smell it, I need to get away from it.’”
Anne at Christmas (Collect/PA Real Life)
Shortly after she was born, Anne was diagnosed with severe asthma, which is caused by inflammation of the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs and can lead to breathing difficulties.
In addition, she also has several allergies, any of which could trigger a dangerous asthma attack.
Although Anne, cannot remember exactly when she first realised she was “allergic to Christmas”, it is something she has dealt with for most of her life.
As a youngster, she had between 50 and 60 different allergy tests in a bid to determine exactly what triggered her asthma.
Then, when she was just 11, the reality of the condition hit home when her mum Mary died because of an attack, aged just 34.
“I waved goodbye to her one morning to go off to school, and never saw her again,” she said, adding that a friend also died of an asthma attack a few years later.
Anne, who has completed three marathons, pictured here after the Glasgow Marathon in 1983 (Collect/PA Real Life)
While her mother’s untimely death taught her to live life to the full, as Anne, a former Scottish diving champion, got older, it became clear that her asthma was going to force her to make adaptations.
When travelling abroad, she had to call the airline in advance and request that the cabin crew ensure passengers did not peel or eat oranges until they had disembarked from the plane.
It also made socialising difficult, and nights out became ordeals as the organiser would often book table at a restaurant – only for Anne to realise that she could not eat anything on the menu.
Anne in December 2016 (Collect/PA Real Life)
“I think some people think it’s funny and don’t take it all very seriously. I’ve had people treat me as if it’s a fad,” she said. “So, I show them my epi-pen and say, ‘Why would I have one of these in my bag?’
“I’ve come close to dying following a severe asthma attack a couple of times already. I’ve had such bad attacks I’ve been on the edge of death and sometimes I wonder how it is I’m still alive.”
Just before Christmas 2016, Anne suffered one of her most terrifying episodes to date.
Anne diving in the European Masters Championships, in 1997 (Collect/PA Real Life)
Then 54 and living in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, she had enjoyed lunch with a pal when she decided to pop into a garden centre.
“The whole place was decorated with these big wooden barrels containing scented pines cones that smelt of orange and cinnamon,” she recalled.
“I’d only been in the shop a few minutes when my throat started to feel itchy. I could tell something was making me wheezy – I just couldn’t tell what.
Anne is determined not to let her asthma hold her back in life (Collect/PA Real Life)
“I quickly left the store and drove the 15 miles home, but I was struggling to breathe by the time I got there.”
Back home, Anne thought she had managed to avoid a full-blown asthma attack by using her inhaler and taking steroids to keep her airways open.
But by the next morning, she was gasping for air and rushed to see her GP.
Anne pictured here gliding in 1998 (Collect/PA Real Life)
“The doctor took one look at me and told the staff to call an ambulance,” she said.
“It felt like someone had put a binding around my chest and had continued to tighten it. It was exhausting and the pain down my back felt like I had been hit by a truck.
“They worked on me for an hour-and-a-half in the ambulance before we even got to hospital, where they used a nebuliser to help me breathe and gave me an adrenaline shot.”
Anne at Christmas (Collect/PA Real Life)
Anne was kept in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn, Norfolk for 10 hours before being discharged – during which time doctors confirmed the festive smells had triggered the attack.
It took her about a week to recover, as the strain the attack had put on her muscles had made her feel she had “run a marathon”.
In the years since, she has been careful to stay away from places such as garden centres and Christmas markets to avoid history repeating itself.
Anne in the Highlands, September 2015 (Collect/PA Real Life)
“Christmas can be a nightmare for me,” she said.
“I have to stay away from mince pies and cakes, and if I even inhale orange zest I struggle to breathe.
“But I’ve learned to manage myself and the threat of an attack over the years.
“I can tell when I’m starting to struggle because I become very weak and it becomes harder to breathe. For the people who just have to watch it, I know it can be really scary because there’s nothing they can do.”
As well as Christmas spices which can be found in mulled wine, mince pies, puddings and even on some decorations, Anne must also avoid room diffusers and certain hand sanitisers.
“It can be hard to work out what’s in them, so I have sourced my own which are citrus-free,” she said.
And although this time of year can be tricky, Anne is still looking forward to spending Christmas with her sister Jean, 53, who is in her support bubble.
Anne celebrating Christmas in Holland in 1992 (Collect/PA Real Life)
“Despite my allergies and asthma, I do still enjoy Christmas,” she said. “I just have to do things a little differently.
“I won’t be drinking Bucks Fizz or eating mince pies, but I will find festive alternatives.
“I’ve lived with asthma most of my life and have learned how to adapt to keep myself safe.
“But people don’t realise how severe it can be, so it’s good to raise awareness.”