Could your cold really be the 'Christmas Tree Syndrome?'

Have you or your loved ones been suffering from itchy eyes, a runny nose, or been prone to sneezing fits lately? If so, it might not be the "common cold." Instead, you could have what doctors have come to call "Christmas Tree Syndrome."


"It's actually pretty common. A lot of people have a lot of allergies, and they experience an increase of symptoms within two weeks of putting up their Christmas tree. They can have a variety of symptoms, runny nose, stuffy nose, coughing, fatigue," listed Debra Harman, MD, with AFC Doctors Express Urgent Care in Cary.

Dr. Harman explained the allergic reaction is usually the result of various molds found in the trees, although some can be allergic to the pine resin itself. A study conducted in 2011 by researchers at State University of New York found 70 percent of the molds in live Christmas trees cause some sort of reaction. Prior to that it was thought the allergies were caused by tree pollen and weed killer used on the trees, although medical professionals no longer believe this to be the case.


So how do you know if you're allergic to your tree or simply suffering from a cold? Dr. Harman said a good rule of thumb is if you've been experiencing symptoms for more than a week, you should get checked out. Or, you might want to seek treatment if you're like Becca Smith and tend to feel your worst when you're at home.

"About a week ago I started itching really badly, had some congestion, wasn't feeling very good. It would start in the morning when I'd wake up, then it would get better during the day. But, when I'd get home at night it would start again," Smith recalled.

Looking back, she realized that this seemed to be a pattern year after year around Christmas, shortly after her family would put up their live tree. It wasn't until this year that she finally sought treatment at AFC Doctors Express Urgent Care in Cary and learned it was an allergy and not a winter cold.

"It had never occurred to me. We've always done live Christmas trees," she remarked.


After diagnosing Smith with "Christmas Tree Syndrome," Dr. Harman gave her medicine to help manage her symptoms. And while Harman advises people with this allergy or those prone to allergies avoid live trees altogether, she said those who are determined to still have a "real tree" can start on medicine earlier in future seasons to get a loading dose in their systems. That's Smith's plan, as she admits she's reluctant to give up what's a treasured tradition for her family.

"We do still have the tree. We're just kind of a diehard live Christmas tree family," she said with a smile.

And, because fake trees can collect dust, pet hair, and even mold and mildew depending on where they're stored, there are things you should watch out for when using an artificial tree, too.

(From: American Christmas Tree Association and Prevention)

For Live Trees:

  • Live trees naturally carry microscopic mold spores that can trigger allergy symptoms, can happen instantly or within the first two weeks of putting up a live tree

  • Tree sap contains substances that can irritate skin and mucous membranes

  • Wear gloves and long sleeves when bringing the tree indoors to avoid sap touching your skin

  • Spray off the tree and its branches with water before bringing it into your house to help remove pollen and mold (you can also give it a good shake or a blast with a leaf blower)

  • Sit the tree stump in a bucket of water and let it dry outside for a few days to prevent mold from growing

  • Families with severe allergies should avoid purchasing a live tree (or, if they can't resist, keep in home for no more than 7 days)

  • For Artificial Trees:

  • Store them properly - wrap the tree securely, store in a cool and dry place, and avoid storing in places that accumulate dust and dirt

  • Wipe down the tree before putting it up in your home

  • Wipe down ornaments

  • Some of the materials used to make artificial trees can cause sinus irritation

  • Go easy on "spray snow" to frost your windows - any aerosolized chemical can irritate the eyes, nose or lungs

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