Feeling wheezy around the holidays? You may have “Christmas Tree Syndrome,” an illness caused by moldy firs.
Dr. Lawrence Kurlandsky, an allergist-immunologist in Syracuse, New York investigated the idea after observing that cases of respiratory illness reach “epidemic peaks” one week before and one week after December 25 for children and adults, “often raising suspicion that a live, indoor, coniferous Christmas tree may be playing a role,” according to a study published in June 2011.
Kurlandsky tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “Many molds can be found on in-home Christmas trees including the four most common molds that people may be allergic to. The article was to make people aware that the presence of an evergreen tree in those during the Christmas season could contribute to respiratory illness in susceptible, allergic people, especially children.”
Fifty-three different types of mold were found on 26 of the 28 tree samples, with most potential allergens that increase the risk of wheezing and coughing. However, the scientists did say the mold may have been present before the trees were brought inside and recommend further studies.
Kurlandsky’s study sprung from two others —one from 1970 which determined that 7 percent of allergic patients developed respiratory and skin allergies to Christmas trees. Some experienced temporary symptoms while decorating the tree, others within 24 hours, or several days afterward. However, that study was mainly inconclusive, not entirely because the rooms weren’t sterile before the trees arrived.
The other study was in 2007 when researchers from St. Vincent's Medical Center in Connecticut found that mold spores on Christmas trees spiked after bringing them inside homes. "This mold spore count is five times above normal,” study co-author Philip Hemmers told HealthDay News in 2008. “These high levels have been correlated with allergic rhinitis and an increased rate of asthma symptoms and asthma-related hospitalization in other studies. So if you don't feel well during the holidays, consider the Christmas tree as a possible source of allergies."
The study wasn’t perfect — HealthDay News reports that only one tree was used in the study, the types of mold were not distinguished, nor their potential to cause allergies.
Martha F. Hartz, M.D., an allergist-immunologist and pediatrician at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that bringing organic material into the home and adding water (it’s recommended to water Christmas trees periodically) can create mold, especially in environments where the heat is on, such as in wintertime.
However, Hartz suspects the holiday season itself, not necessarily trees, can harm people with allergies. “At Christmas time, people are burning fires, lighting candles with strong odors, and welcoming more people into their homes, such as the uncle who might smoke or the aunt who wears strong perfume,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “All these scents, including the exposure of germs, can change the air quality of a home and trigger colds and asthma.”
Asthma causes the airways to tighten and thicken with mucus, which interferes with breathing. Mold, pet dander and air pollution are some causes. Hartz says people worried about Christmas trees can cover the wet and damp base of the trunks with a garbage bag to lessen the breakdown of plant material that causes mold. “But we’re less worried about the tree alone,” she adds.
Kurlandsky had the same advice, saying in a press release of the mold he found, “If you and your children don’t have any obvious allergies, then it is probably not going to bother you.” He also said an artificial tree might not solve the problem if it’s packed away in dusty, moldy areas.
For people susceptible to allergens, Kurlandsky recommended asking Christmas farms to wash the tree upon purchase, using a garden hose yourself and letting it air dry outside, buying an air purifier for the home or reducing exposure by tossing the tree right after the holiday.
Related Video: Tips to Prevent Your Christmas Tree From Catching Fire
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