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As you decorate, guard against Christmas tree syndrome

This traditional decoration can trigger cold-like symptoms

Photo © Monkey Business - Fotolia

This week millions of consumers will begin decorating for the holidays, a practice that usually includes putting up and decorating a Christmas tree. It's a traditional part of the season but can also trigger allergic reactions, what doctors at AFC Doctors Expresscall “Christmas tree syndrome.”

AFC Doctors Express is one of those urgent care medical providers where consumers can go to receive emergency treatment. Physicians there say this time of year they see allergic reactions triggered by not just live Christmas trees but artificial ones as well.


Symptoms usually include runny noses, sneezing and itchy eyes, so similar to cold symptoms that people often mistake Christmas tree syndrome for that.

Respiratory illnesses tend to peak around Christmas, according to research published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Allergic reactions can be triggered either by the smell of live trees' pine resin or from various molds.

Sometimes the reaction doesn't occur right away. Within two weeks of bringing a live tree into a home mold counts can rapidly rise. The company cites research done at State University of New York which found that 70% of the molds found in live Christmas trees can set off reactions like severe asthma attacks, fatigue and sinus congestion.

Consider this

If a live tree is part of your celebration this year, here are some facts to consider:

  • Live trees naturally carry microscopic mold spores that can trigger allergy symptoms. Be alert to an allergic reaction, which can happen instantly or within the first two weeks of putting up a live tree
  • Tree sap contains terpene and other substances that can irritate skin and mucous membranes
  • It's advisable to wear gloves and long sleeves when bringing the tree indoors to avoid sap touching your skin
  • Trying spraying the tree with water before bringing it into your house. It can remove some of the pollen and mold
  • Stand the tree in a bucket of water and let it dry outside for a few days. That will prevent mold from growing
  • Finally, if someone in your household has severe allergies, it might be best to avoid putting up a live tree.

Artificial trees

But artificial trees can come with their own set of Christmas tree syndrome effects. To avoid problems, physicians recommend using artificial trees that have been properly stored – wrapped securely and kept in a cool, dry space away from dust and dirt.

They also suggest wiping down the tree before putting it up in your home and wiping down the ornaments that go on the tree. Remember that some of the materials used to make artificial trees can cause sinus irritation. And go easy on the spray snow. Any aerosolized chemical can cause irritant reactions in the eyes, nose or lungs.

Fire hazards

Don't forget that besides causing allergic reactions, bringing a tree into your home and putting electric lights on it can lead to a fire hazard. Each holiday season an estimated 230 home fires start with Christmas trees. These fires cause an average of six deaths, 22 injuries and $18.3 million in direct property damage.

If you are putting up a live tree make sure it's fresh. Needles should be deep green and the trunk should be sticky and wet with resin.

If you're using an artificial tree, it should bear a “fire resistant” label.

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