Christmas Allergies

I know this post is a little late… but I just had a conversation with a patient today as well as several other people during the holiday season.  The hot topic was seasonal allergies caused by Christmas decorations.  Yes, my tree (which is a live tree) is still up but is coming down shortly!  The holiday season for most people means family, food and festivities but it is sometimes associated with seasonal symptoms that seem to arise from Christmas trees or other greenery arrangements. You may have heard that “Christmas tree allergies” are to blame for these unexpected symptoms.

If you notice your allergy symptoms ramping up each year when you put your live Christmas tree in your home, you may wonder if you are allergic to your tree.  The short answer is yes but maybe not for the reasons you might think.

Can Christmas trees cause allergies?

  • Tree pollen: Christmas trees produce their pollen in the springtime.  Most of this pollen is washed away by the holiday season but some may remain and cause those with pollen allergies trouble.
  • Mold spores: In a 2011 study, researchers tested samples from 28 different Christmas trees and found over 50 different types of mold, 34 of which they classified as potential allergens. Mold can also grow on artificial trees stored in humid or damp places, such as garages, attics, and basements.
  • Dust mites and insect droppings: Whether you have a real or fake tree, dust and insect debris can easily gather on the many crevices in the branches. Decorating or moving your tree can often stir up any allergens that have accumulated and cause allergy symptoms to flare up.
  • Weed pollen: Weeds reproduce in the fall, meaning that weed pollen is often floating through the air around the time that pine trees are being cut down to be used during the holiday season.  Many people have severe reactions to weed pollen and bringing it into the house can cause them severe problems.
  • Tree sap: Christmas tree sap contains a material called colophony, also known as rosin, that can cause a poison ivy-like rash in sensitive individuals. This rash will typically start to appear one or two days after first touching the tree.
  • Terpenes and pinenes: These compounds are responsible for the pine tree smell that we associate with Christmas trees. Unfortunately, some people can be allergic to this scent and start to develop allergy symptoms when exposed.
  • Chemical sprays: Some Christmas tree farms spray their trees with chemicals, such as pesticides, that can cause skin and eye irritation. Additionally, fake snow sprays may also trigger allergy symptoms in some people.

How to deal with Christmas tree allergies.

Fortunately, no matter which of the above factors are responsible for your holiday allergy symptoms, there are steps that you can take to minimize or prevent your allergen exposure. I have a high school friend whose family owns a Christmas tree farm, and he recommends the following if you prefer not to buy a fake tree:

Hose it off

Fill a hose sprayer with some Dawn soap and spray out the tree from top to bottom, rotating the tree frequently.  In addition to washing off allergens such as mold and pollen, hosing down your tree can also remove any lingering dirt, insects, or dead needles.  This method also helps to remove chemicals sprayed in the growing process.  Be sure to rinse out the tree with fresh water after using the soap.  This cleaning process helps the tree to hydrate properly as it may have been cut many days prior.  Be sure to make a fresh stump cut and get the tree into freshwater ASAP.

Blow it off

A leaf blower can help you get even more dust and pollen off as well as the excess water from the cleaning process.  Depending on outdoor or garage temperatures, the tree can air dry the rest of the way for a few hours. To prevent mold growth, make sure that your tree is completely dry before you bring it indoors.

Tip: Live Christmas trees are not the only holiday decorations that can harbor unseen allergens. Live and artificial wreaths, garlands and ornaments can all accumulate dust or mold spores during storage. Try cleaning off all decorations outside or in a well-ventilated area before putting them up.

Tip: If you suffer from severe allergies, it is best to ask a friend or family member to help you prepare the tree before you bring it in. That way, you can avoid being exposed to the allergens that you are trying to get rid of.

Protect your skin

If you are allergic to tree sap, or if you have especially sensitive skin, consider wearing gloves and long sleeves when cleaning and decorating your Christmas tree. Also, you should make sure to change clothes immediately after you are finished working with the tree.

Protect your air

Air purifiers can be used in the room that houses your Christmas tree and can be an effective way to remove allergens from your indoor air. Traditional air filters can remove particulate matter, such as dust and mold, from the air by trapping particles on a filter surface.  More expensive models can remove the smaller particles caused by chemical outgassing.  Remember the trees can be grown with chemicals

So, if you seem to develop allergies when the holiday decorations go up in the house, try these simple solutions to reduce your exposure to possible allergens.  Not only is it better for your health, but it can help live decorations last longer with less needle drop.  Now you can put up your tree right after Thanksgiving and leave it up well into January!  Christmas is a season not a day, Grinches!