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Itching for Christmas: How to help avoid yuletide allergies from real and artificial trees

A Christmas tree in a living room.
Brittany Sweeney
Christmas trees are beautiful to look at, but can cause a not-so-pretty allergic reaction in some people.

Holiday hazards may be lurking in the home.

Dusty décor such as Christmas trees can pose a threat to the people pulling them out and putting them up for the season, experts say.

And as families are decking the halls for the holidays, it won't be so jolly if allergies get triggered or anyone develops respiratory issues.

"House dust is a common indoor environmental allergen and so particularly when we're a little bit more cooped up in the wintertime, any of those sort of indoor allergens can be more active,” said Dr. Joseph Schellenberg.

Schellenberg is a pulmonologist with Lehigh Valley Physicians Group Pulmonary and Critical Care.

Schellenberg said whether trees are real or artificial, people need to be cleaning them and other decorations before they go up in the home.
"Dust on the ornaments is a thing; dust on the Christmas tree is a thing," he said.

"In addition, in terms of storage, you gotta be careful about where a lot of us put it in the cellar or the attic, and some of those can be kind of moist and humid environments and so the big thing is mold is a big concern."

Schellenberg said "anything that absorbs water, holds water, can hold mold."

Keeping the needles clean

Schellenberg said live trees also can cause problems by triggering allergies.

He suggested people hose off their tree and let it dry before bringing it inside.

“There's some who advocate, before you bring it in the house, give your tree a spa treatment, which means hose it outdoors," he said. "And then, if it can tolerate it, even air blow it.

"But [you] certainly want to make sure that it's reached a dry state before you bring it in moist and then that should or could that diminish the sort of the allergen load."

Placing those special ornaments on a real tree also can cause problems.

Christmas Tree Syndrome is when someone has an allergic reaction to a Christmas tree.

Schellenberg explains that touching the tree and its sap can cause a reaction similar to poison ivy in some people.

“Some people can have sort of a true allergy reaction in terms of like some rash and irritation," he said. "But the other thing it says is that the pine sap actually is actually a little bit closer to poison ivy."

He said that doesn’t mean those people can’t participate in decorating the tree, but should wear long sleeves and consider wearing gloves when touching their pine.

Schellenberg also said people should get rid of real trees as soon as Christmas is over.

“As it starts degrading, it's going to cause more potential problems," he said.

Avoiding dust for next year

He said people can go a step further to clear the air, but it could be costly to reduce allergic reactions.

"None of us, I don't think, are so great with sort of wiping and removing the sort of the dust/pollens that could be attached to all these things, so I think an air purifier could help," he said.

When the time comes to put away those holiday decorations, it’s recommended that you store them in a plastic or non-organic container to keep them free of dust and mold.

"For people with significant allergic disease, I would say a well-maintained, well-stored indoor tree is going to be a better option," Schellenberg said.

"And that would include either dusting or vacuuming the tree to remove dust, either upon setup or taking it down or both."

Doing some dusting, blowing off those bells, and trading in some of those trimmings could just help people have a happier, healthier holiday season.

Copyright 2023 91.3 WLVR Lehigh Valley NPR. To see more, visit 91.3 WLVR Lehigh Valley NPR.