Could your Christmas tree be making you sick?

Amidst the holiday cheer, Christmas tree syndrome poses a potential threat to our respiratory health. Here’s how to have a joyous festive season free from allergy worries.

As the festive season approaches and homes are adorned with beautiful Christmas trees, it’s important to be aware of a lesser-known holiday hazard: Christmas Tree Syndrome.

This condition could be the unseen culprit behind those unexplained sneezes, coughs, or itchy eyes during the holiday season.

What is Christmas tree syndrome?

Putting up your Christmas tree – whether real or artificial – is one of the most loved traditions of the festive season.

But for some people, it can bring about allergy and asthmatic symptoms, general practitioner Dr Tanya Unni explains.

Live trees, such as cypress and pine, can collect high amounts of pollen from surrounding plants prior to being harvested, potentially transforming your living room into a source of asthma and hay fever triggers.

“The term ‘Christmas tree syndrome’ speaks to these symptoms which individuals are reporting to experience,” Dr Unni says.

“These can be a result of prolonged exposure to live Christmas trees and the dust, pollen or mould that may reside in them.”

First identified in 1929, Christmas tree syndrome is estimated to affect about six per cent of people with a 2011 study reporting that more than 50 kinds of mould were found on samples researchers brought in from their own Christmas trees.

National Asthma Council Australia spokesperson and allergist, Professor Sheryl van Nunen, is urging allergy sufferers to remain vigilant, particularly around real trees this Christmas.

“Real Christmas trees like cypress and pine can trap high amounts of pollen from other plants before they are cut down, and as the cut tree dries out, it releases the pollen which becomes airborne inside the house,” she explains.

Are fake Christmas trees safer for allergies?

Dr Unni says both real and artificial trees can cause Christmas Tree Syndrome, but with different triggers for each.

“Live pine Christmas trees may contain pesticides, dust, insect droppings and mould, which may trigger minor to severe allergic reactions.

“But artificial trees are usually kept in storage somewhere in our homes and aren’t touched for an entire year, subjecting them to a build-up of dust that can be released into the home when unpacked.”

However, this year-long accumulation of dust is an issue experts say isn’t just limited to fake Christmas trees.

“Even festive decorations, which is the most exciting part of the Christmas tree tradition, can put you at risk if these have become dusty or mouldy in storage,” Prof van Nunen says.

What are the signs of Christmas tree syndrome?

Prof van Nunen says some of these allergic symptoms can include wheezing, sneezing and sore eyes.

“It also can lead to coughing, skin rashes and even potentially serious asthma attacks,” she says.

How prevalent is the Christmas tree syndrome in Australia?

There has yet to be a formal study on this little-known condition in Australia but Prof van Nunen says anecdotally, between five to 10 per cent of allergic Aussies may experience symptoms.

“This is a similar figure to that observed in the first study in 1929 in the UK, which was six per cent,” she explains.

“As well as another study done in 1970, which surveyed 1657 Canadian allergy sufferers and found seven per cent suffered from Christmas tree syndrome.”

How to avoid Christmas tree syndrome

Despite the condition, Dr Unni says this shouldn’t stop you from getting into the Christmas spirit.

“It comes down to choosing the best tree for your home and those living in it, and the preparation and cleaning involved prior to setting it up,” she explains.

If you’re already following an asthma action plan that you have developed with your doctor, Prof van Nunen advises sticking to it.

“This means making sure you have your asthma and allergy 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.”

What to do before you bring a Christmas tree inside

The National Asthma Council Australia recommends:

For real trees

  • 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 fake trees

  • 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.

More festive inspiration:

Written by Melissa Hong.