The holiday season means family, food and festivities, but it can also bring about some unwelcome guests: allergies. Though known for colds and flu, December is sometimes associated with seasonal symptoms—uncontrollable sneezing fits, itchy watery eyes, sniffly runny noses—that seem to arise around Christmas trees or other greenery arrangements. You may have heard that “Christmas tree allergies” are to blame for these unexpected symptoms.
Below, we’ll take a look at possible reasons for why some people experience respiratory symptoms around Christmas decorations and what you can do to breathe easier this holiday season.
Can Christmas trees cause allergies?
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 the type of tree pollen it contains, perhaps pine pollen. However, though pine pollen can be an allergen, it probably is not the cause of your wintertime symptoms. Pine pollen is only produced in the springtime when the trees reproduce, and it is typically long gone by the time you bring a Christmas tree into your home. That is why the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology considers pine tree allergies and Christmas tree allergies two completely separate conditions.
So now the question remains: if pine tree pollen is not responsible for Christmas tree allergies, also known as “Christmas tree syndrome,” what is? The answer may be more complex than you think. If your tree is triggering allergy symptoms, you may be sensitive to one of the following:
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 (Kurlandsky et al., 2011). 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.
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. A Christmas tree rash will typically start to appear one or two days after first touching the tree.
- Terpenes and pinenes: These compounds are responsible for the signature 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, according to Kim Coder, a professor at the University of Georgia.
- 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 can you 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. If you prefer not to buy a fake tree, try the following Christmas tree allergy tips:
Shake it off
Before you bring your Christmas tree into your home, you should give it a good shake to help dislodge some of the dust, pollen and other allergens that may have settled in the branches (and don’t forget to wear a face mask).
Hose it off
In addition to washing off allergens such as mold and pollen, hosing down your tree can also remove any lingering dirt and make sure that your tree is sparkling clean before you start decorating. To prevent Christmas tree mold growth, make sure that your tree is completely dry before you bring it indoors.
Blow it off
A leaf blower can help you get even more dust and pollen off of your tree before bringing it inside. Plus, it is a great way to dry off your tree off after you wash it. You can also use a vacuum or air compressor for this step (and wearing a face mask while doing so).
Tip: If you suffer from Christmas tree 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 preparing 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
Moving your air purifier to the room that houses your Christmas tree 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. Our proprietary PECO technology, on the other hand, can trap and destroy allergens that your Christmas tree may bring into your home.
Dealing with allergies from artificial Christmas trees
When it comes to artificial Christmas trees, the number one way to avoid allergen exposure is to be a stickler for proper storage. To prevent dust and mold growth, store your tree in a cool, dry place when it is not in use. Putting the tree parts in sealed bags or containers can help further protect them. Then, when the Christmas season rolls around again, make sure to dust off each part of your artificial Christmas tree before assembling it.
Tip: Christmas trees are not the only holiday decorations that can harbor unseen allergens. 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.
Which Christmas tree is best for allergies?
If you are among the people whose holiday season is intruded upon by Christmas tree allergies, you may be tempted to forgo the tree altogether. Before you do, here are a few suggestions that have helped others with allergies.
Buy a different type of live tree
If you experience respiratory irritation to pine trees, trying another species of tree, such as fir, spruce, or cypress, may help. Some people prefer the Concolor fir (a.k.a. White fir), while others point out that the Leyland cypress or Eastern white pine may also be great for people with allergies or who are sensitive to tree scents. Note, however, that if you are looking for a specific type of tree, you may need to begin your search early to find one in your area.
Research before going artificial
Though artificial trees may seem like the safest option, the Christmas Tree Association warns that some brands may be made with materials that cause sinus irritation. Additionally, many artificial Christmas trees may off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that were used in the manufacturing process.
Consider looking for an artificial tree that was made without PVC or brominated flame retardants, both of which are known to cause adverse health effects. Unfortunately, finding an artificial tree that meets these requirements is no easy task. The only ones we found online were IKEA’s line of VINTERFEST artificial trees. Ranging from $14.99 to $49.99, these trees are available in three sizes—55, 69, and 86.5 inches. They are made with PET plastic instead of PVC and, according to All Natural Savings and IKEA’s literature, they should be free of brominated flame retardants.
There are also many other creative ways to get the feel of a Christmas tree without having to worry about allergies or VOCs. For example, you can:
- Create an upholstered Christmas tree. Consider using actual lumber instead of plywood or particle board, as pressed wood can off-gas formaldehyde. For extra points, try buying fabric that carries an OEKO-TEX standard, signifying that the material was made without harmful chemicals.
- Turn a tomato cage into a Christmas tree. You can use ribbons, ornaments and lights to transform an upside-down tomato cage into the perfect allergen-free Christmas tree. Plus, the conical shape is perfect for a tree topper!
- Clear off the bookshelf. Book-lovers everywhere can get excited about this kind of tree. There are many different ways that you can use the books that you already have to create a truly one-of-a-kind Christmas tree. (As a bonus, you can put even more Christmas decorations on any cleared-off shelf space).
If you love the holidays but dread the thought of suffering through allergies for another holiday season, you probably have more options than you think. Whether you decide to go with a live Christmas tree, an artificial one, or one made of something new and unexpected, a few simple precautions can make a difference for the air you breathe.