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Your Holiday Allergy Survival Guide

The Yule log is burning in the fireplace and various holiday ornaments are back in use for the holiday season. This is a particularly tricky time for those affected by indoor allergies, sinus problems, asthma and other respiratory disorders. Each year my staff and I take the extra time to educate our allergy sufferers and better prepare them for the onslaught of holiday and winter-time allergies.

First, do you notice that when the family Christmas tree, complete with holiday ornaments makes its appearance in your home, your nasal, eye, sinus and various respiratory symptoms begin to worsen? Live Christmas trees can trigger mold allergies and the spores that thrive on their branches can trigger weeks of suffering.

Many people consider pine tree pollen to be the primary cause of their allergy symptoms during the holidays. But, while it's possible to have an allergy to pine tree pollen, you're much less likely to have symptoms during the Christmas season because pine trees mostly pollinate in the spring.

Christmas trees are a source for mold spores which attach to the branches and needles. Because these trees may be cut up to two months before they arrive in your home, and are kept alive by daily watering, which over time, can lead to mold growth.

Typically, spore counts in your house climb when evergreen trees are brought indoors. Connecticut allergist Philip Hemmers, who recently studied this holiday phenomenon, found that indoor mold counts in a home with a Christmas tree increased to five times the normal level within two weeks of bringing the tree indoors. So if you are allergic to mold, try running an air cleaner in the same room as the tree and shorten the length of time you have the tree in the house to limit mold exposure. And for those who are sensitive to odors, avoiding live Christmas trees may be a wise decision because the aroma could irritate their eyes and nose.

Terpene, which is found in the oil and sap of many evergreen trees and wreaths, is also a potential allergy culprit. Terpene can cause skin rashes when it comes in contact with the skin of allergic individuals.

So, how can you reduce the risks of Christmas tree allergies interfering with your holidays? Here are some tips that may help_

  • When handling a live tree, be sure to wear a long-sleeved shirt and gloves, to prevent sap and resins from irritating the skin.
  • The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology suggests that you allow your tree to dry out on an enclosed porch or garage before bringing it indoors, while keeping the trunk in a bucket of water so it doesn't die.
  • You also may want to explore whether your tree retailer provides a shaking machine, which will physically remove some allergens from the tree.
  • Be sure to clean ornaments and lights before decorating your tree to rid them of dust and mold.
Artificial trees remain an option for people with mold allergies, but even artificial trees can aggravate allergies. They tend to collect dust and mold since they're in storage for most of the year. If you have an artificial tree, store it in a cool, dry place, and wipe it down or wash it before putting it up.

The risks associated with a real or artificial tree can be reduced significantly by following simple precautions:

  • Use a cloth to wipe clean your artificial tree.
  • Decorations stored for the past year in a damp basement may harbor molds or dust mites. Whenever possible, keep ornaments and decorations stored in dry areas, off the floor in plastic bags. It is also a good idea to wash your hands after unpacking them.
  • The ever popular holiday plant, the poinsettia, belongs to the same plant family as the Brazilian rubber tree from which latex is obtained. Direct contact with a broken poinsettia leaf can trigger a rash or allergy symptoms if you are sensitive to latex rubber.
  • Candles and incense can trigger allergies, but by using soy and beeswax candles you can reduce your risk of suffering respiratory symptoms.

Dr. Clifford Bassett is an adult and pediatric allergy specialist, and diplomat of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. He is the medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of NY.  Bassett is a clinical assistant professor of medicine and on the teaching faculty of NYU School of Medicine and NYU Langone Medical Center and assistant clinical professor of Medicine and Otolaryngology at SUNY LICH. Follow him on Twitter.

 

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