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If you always seems to come down with a cold during the winter holidays you may be allergic to Christmas trees. Or, to put it more accurately, you may be allergic to somthing related to Christmas trees but not necessarly to the tree itself.
Many people think that plant-based allergies only occur in warm weather but there are a number of reasons why your tannenbaum may be the real cause of your symptoms. In fact, one study of allergic patients published in the Canadian Medical Association journal found that 7% of the population experience symptoms as a result of being exposed to pine trees.
What are symptoms of a Christmas tree allergy?
The first time you’re exposed to a specific allergen you won’t experience symptoms because it takes time for your immune system to develop antibodies in response to the trigger. The majority of patients in the aforementioned study developed symptoms within 24 hours but 15% of them did not show a reaction for several days. In some cases this sensitization process can take months or even years which explains why you may develop allergies later in life.
Once you develop an allergy to Christmas trees you may experience the following sypmtoms:
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
- Itchy eyes and nose
- Dark circles under your eyes
- Skin rash
Causes of a Christmas tree allergy
Multiple factors can trigger an allergic reaction related to Christmas trees and not all of them are related to botanical properties of the tree itself.
- Mold and pollen
Mold spores attach themselves to live pine trees due to the moisture build-up on their leaves and branches and even the bark. Researchers at SUNY Upstate Medical University found that pine trees can carry 53 different types of mold. Most of these species were identified as possible respiratory allergens, specifically for infants. After the tree is brought into the house, the spores multiply and are released into the air. A 2007 study found that apartments containing a live Christmas had a 6-fold increase in airborne mold. Researchers found that the mold counts spiked while the tree was in the room and did not return to normal levels until after the tree was removed. In addition, a number of weed, grass and tree pollens were also found in the air during the time Christmas trees were in the house. In the Canadian study cited above, large numbers of Penicillium, Epicoccum and Alternaria spores where found in pine and spruce bark but these spores did not become airborne.
- Pine scent
The characteristic pine scent of Christmas trees comes from a class of chemicals known as terpenes which are found in tree sap. The good news is that terpenes make your home smell nice during the holidays. The bad news is that these chemicals can also cause irritation and/or allergies in certain people. Terpenes are also used in compounded fragrances like those found in some varieties of air fresheners and cleaning products.
- Dust mites
Dust mites are one of the most common triggers for respiratory allergies. Not only can they be carried into your house on live pine trees but they can also accumulate on artificial trees, and even lights and ornaments, if the storage conditions are right.
- Insect droppings
Pests, such as cockroaches, can leave droppings on both live and artificial trees that can trigger an allergic response.
- Chemical treatments
Chemicals used at Christmas tree farms may also be problematic. While these materials may not be true allergens they can cause similar symptoms. Organophosphates used as pesticides, for example, can cause coughing and wheezing.
- Nut allergens
It’s important to note that you can also be allergic to pine nuts which are produced by some species of pine trees. Fortunately, nuts typically cause an allergic reaction only after they are eaten to you shouldn’t have any problem just from being the same room as a Christmas tree.
What can you do to prevent Christmas tree allergies?
Avoiding live trees may be the most effective way to control Chistmas tree allergies. You can always buy an artifical tree and use a pine scented air freshener if you miss the smell. However, be warned that even this approach offers no guarantee because artifical trees can also accumlate dust and mold spores while air fresheners may contain fragrance made with terpines. Regardless of the type of tree you chose, the following cleaning and storage tips can help reduce your exposure to allergens.
- Shake the tree to remove as much debris as possible before bringing it in the house. This step can reduce dust and pollen.
- Hose down live trees before bringing them in the house if possible. Mold spores thrive on moisture so be sure to first thoroughly dry the tree by leaving it in the sun or by using a leaf blower or air compressor.
- Spray live trees with a dilute chlorine bleach solution to kill mold spores. Some sources claims that the bleach will also reduce the scent of terpenes.
- Wipe artificial trees and ornaments with a soft, dry cloth to keep them dust free. (Ornaments made of solid materials like glass, metal and plastic are easier to clean than one made from soft fabric.)
- Dispose of your live tree as soon as possible because mold spores continues to reproduce as long as the tree is inside your house.
- Store artificial trees in a dry, cool space. Sealing the tree sections in a box or plastic bag will reduce dust accumulation throughout the year.
- Inspect stored trees every 4 to 6 months to ensure there is no infestation of insects or rodents.
- Wear a mask when retrieving artificial trees and ornaments from storage.
To learn more
If you suspect that you suffer from Christmas tree allergies (or other seasonal allergies) you can schedule a consultation with Dr. Caballero at Advanced Sinus and Allergy Center. Call (847) 655-7442 or click the Request Appointment button at the top of this page to see Dr. Caballero at our Park Ridge, IL location (northwest Chicago area.)
- Can Med Assoc J. 1970 Dec 5;103(12):1272-6. Christmas tree allergy: mould and pollen studies.
Randy is Director of Operations for Advanced Sinus and Allergy Center. He has over 30 years experience in Research and Development and is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.