A woman who is 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, and now has to buy all of her gifts in September to avoid another near-death experience.
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, and when they are exposed to an allergen that irritates the airways, it can trigger asthma symptoms.
Anne realised the seriousness of her condition at the age of 11 when her mum, Mary Murray, collapsed and died from an asthma attack at the age of 34.
Seven years later, Anne’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.
Anne had a near-death experience herself in November 2016 when she smelt “pine cones impregnated with citrus” in a garden centre. She was later rushed to hospital and given steroids to ease her condition, but was told it was a “close call”.
Since then, Anne finishes her Christmas shopping by September to avoid being near festive smells in shopping centres, and often turns down invites to Christmas parties which she finds “quite isolating”.
Anne told PA Real Life: “It can be quite isolating – 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 was diagnosed with severe asthma shortly after she was born and also has several allergies – including to citrus and cinnamon – which could trigger a fatal asthma attack.
“It’s a double whammy with my asthma and allergies – just smelling, tasting or touching things like oranges could kill me,” she said.
She was 11 when her mum, Mary Murray, collapsed and died from an asthma attack in March 1974.
Anne said: “I waved goodbye to Mum to go to school, and I never saw her again.
“It just shows you never know what is around the corner.”
Seven years later, Anne’s friend Julia died aged 18 from an asthma attack while she was babysitting.
While these deaths taught her to “live life to the full”, as Anne got older, it became clear that her asthma was going to force her to make some adjustments.
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, and she has to inform all her colleagues not to wear festive perfume in the office.
Seven years ago, Anne suffered one of her most terrifying episodes to date.
On November 5 2016, then aged 54 and living in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, she was out having lunch with a friend and decided to pop into a garden centre.
As soon as she walked in she could smell citrus, which instantly made her panic.
“They had huge, big wooden barrels of pinecones impregnated with citrus to give that Christmassy smell and I had difficulty breathing,” she recalled.
“I grabbed my inhaler and ran quickly out of the garden centre because of being allergic to oranges and cinnamon.”
On the drive home, her condition worsened. She explained: “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”.
The following day, a Sunday, she used her nebuliser again, but her breathing did not get any easier.
On the Monday, she visited her GP first thing, barely being able to stand up, and they called an ambulance straight away.
Anne was taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn, where she was given oxygen and strong nebulisers, before returning home with seven days’ worth of steroids.
She said: “They all told me it was a close call so it was lucky I had my nebuliser on me.”
Looking back, Anne said: “I wish shops would put up signs saying they have festive scents in store – it would be so helpful for me, and stop them getting complaints too.”
Luckily, she has not had a similar attack since then but now avoids supermarkets, shopping and parties around the festive season.
She said: “I get my Christmas shopping done by September, and if there is anything extra that I need, I buy it online.
“I don’t go anywhere near supermarkets and that sort of thing – it’s not worth the risk.
“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, Anne is looking forward to spending Christmas Day alone and visiting her dad, Archie Murray, and stepmum, Alice Murray, in Scotland.
She said: “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.”