Festive fail: Could your Christmas tree be making you sick?

A little-known syndrome is triggered by the festive foliage in your home and could be the culprit behind your allergies and asthma.

When Jill Gallagher’s boys wanted a real Christmas tree, she thought it would enhance their festive fun.

Instead, her younger son Michael began to wheeze.

“His eyes started watering and he was coughing,” the Melbourne mother recalls.

“We didn’t think much of it, but later on we looked at the Christmas tree and thought, ‘It’s the tree’.”

Jill treated Michael, then aged about 6, with his asthma medication – he and his brother David had the condition.

And she put the tree away.

By morning, the symptoms were gone.

Michael, now 23, and David, now 27, never asked for a real tree again.

“When I see Christmas trees on the side of the road, it gives me stress just looking at it,” Jill says.

Christmas tree syndrome is real

The Gallaghers didn’t know it at the time, but Michael had Christmas tree syndrome, an allergic reaction that can cause wheezing, sneezing, coughs, sore eyes and potentially serious asthma attacks.

Experts warn that real or artificial trees adorned with bright baubles and shimmering tinsel can cause it.

Real trees, such as cypress and pine, can collect high amounts of pollen from other plants before they’re cut down, turning your lounge room into a trigger for asthma and hay fever symptoms.

Artificial trees and decorations can also cause problems if, while in storage, they gather dust, dust mites or mould (which may be invisible to the naked eye).

National Asthma Council Australia Guidelines Committee chair Professor Nick Zwar says few people realise that Christmas trees can make you sick.

He says a warm, damp spring and summer like we’ve had can also exacerbate mould and pollen problems.

“There will be the occasional person who is actually allergic to conifers,” he says. “Most often, it will be the mould or the pollen.”

How to avoid Christmas tree syndrome

Prof Zwar says those with allergies and/or asthma can still have a Christmas tree if they wipe artificial trees clean of dust and mould with a damp cloth or take a hose to the real version.

“You can pretty much overcome the problem by simply hosing off the tree before you bring it in the house, and letting it dry,” he says. “You’ll greatly reduce the amount of pollen and dust.”

If a Christmas tree does trigger asthma, Professor Zwar says to follow your action plan or take four separate puffs of a blue/grey reliever.

If your asthma persists, follow the National Asthma Council Australia’s First Aid for Asthma.

“Make sure you have your medication with you and take it as advised by your doctor, even if you are out celebrating during the festive season or away on holidays,” Prof Zwar says.

What to do before you bring a Christmas tree inside

Here are some tips from the National Asthma Council Australia.

For those who want a real tree

  • Hose down your live tree before you bring it into the house to help wash off the allergens.
  • If you notice increased asthma or allergy symptoms, move your tree outside.

For those who want a fake tree

  • Give your artificial tree a good shake outdoors before you put it up inside.
  • Unpack your tree and decorations outside and vacuum them as you get them out of the box.
  • Wipe your artificial tree, wreaths, garlands and ornaments with a damp cloth to remove the dust.
  • When packing away trees and decorations, use airtight plastic bags and sealed boxes to minimise dust.
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Written by Cheryl Critchley.