Woman forced to stay at home at Christmas because the smell of mince pies ‘could kill her’

Anne Murray, 61, has severe asthma and is allergic to citrus and cinnamon – and that means she has to avoid Christmas parties and does all of her festive shopping in September

Molly Powell
Tuesday 28 November 2023 17:27 GMT
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A woman so allergic to the scent of Christmas that even “smelling a mince pie could kill [her]” almost died after a festive trip to a garden centre sparked an asthma attack.

Anne Murray, 61, an engineer who lives alone in Lanark, Scotland, was diagnosed with severe asthma as a baby and has been allergic to traditional festive staples such as citrus and cinnamon since she was a child.

According to the NHS, severe asthma means the condition is uncontrolled even when sufferers are taking their medication. When they are exposed to an allergen that irritates the airways, it can trigger asthma symptoms.

Murray realised the seriousness of her condition at the age of 11 when her mother, Mary, collapsed and died from an asthma attack at the age of 34. Seven years later, Murray’s childhood best friend, Julia, also died from an asthma attack. Both deaths made her “live life to the full” and she has since done a bungee jump and travelled the globe.

Murray had a near-death experience herself in November 2016 when she smelt “pine cones impregnated with citrus” in a garden centre. “I had difficulty breathing,” she recalled. “I grabbed my inhaler and ran quickly out of the garden centre.” On the drive home, her condition worsened. “It felt like someone was sitting on my chest.”

Once home, she used her nebuliser – a device that enables her to breathe by giving her medicine as a mist – but could not get to sleep that night as she kept coughing, and whenever she laid down, it felt like she was “choking”. Two days later, and still struggling to breathe, she visited her GP and was barely able to stand up. An ambulance was called straight away, and Murray was given oxygen and strong nebulisers, before returning home with seven days’ worth of steroids. “They all told me it was a close call so it was lucky I had my nebuliser on me.”

Since that incident, Murray has finished her Christmas shopping by September to avoid being near festive smells in shopping centres, and often turns down invites to Christmas parties.

“It can be quite isolating,” she says. “If friends want to go out around Christmas, I have to ask them to go to different places where I know are safe. I can’t eat or be anywhere near things that smell like Christmas, or eat anything Christmassy like mince pies and stollen cake – I don’t touch them with a 10-foot barge pole. Just smelling a mince pie could kill me. So many things have Christmassy spices that you wouldn’t normally think of, too.”

Anne has severe asthma and is allergic to citrus and cinnamon

Following the dual losses of her mother and best friend, Murray learnt that she would have to make day-to-day adjustments to her life in order to maintain her own safety. When travelling, she often has to call the airline in advance to request that passengers only eat or peel oranges once they get off the plane. She also has to inform all her work colleagues not to wear festive perfume in the office.

“I wish shops would put up signs saying they have festive scents in store,” she adds. “It would be so helpful for me, and stop them getting complaints too.”

Today, she makes sure to keep her own Christmas planning low-key. “I don’t go anywhere near supermarkets and that sort of thing – it’s not worth the risk,” she says. “It can be embarrassing a lot of the time – if I go to a restaurant and tell them about my allergies, I get turned away and we have to find somewhere else to go. Or, I get loads of staff around me and I just don’t want the attention.”

This year, Murray is looking forward to spending Christmas Day alone and visiting her dad, Archie, and stepmum, Alice, in Scotland. She says: “I still like Christmas, and I’m excited to be on my own this year – I can put my feet up and watch the telly, and eat whatever I want.”

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