When holiday season rolls around one of the fist items on the “to do” list is setting up the family Christmas tree. For those of us who celebrate Christmas it’s a special family tradition that often signals the start of the season. But for some the introduction of the scent of fresh evergreen in the home is not a pleasant experience – it can actually mean the onset of allergy-like symptoms, such as a stuffy nose or wheezing, that make the tradition anything but pleasant.
Well-Being turned to allergy/immunology specialist Dr. Gailen Marshall of the University of Mississippi School of Medicine to learn about how some traditional Christmas greenery can trigger unpleasant responses for those who are sensitive to their pungent fragrance.
Surprisingly, we learned that the response to the aromatic nature of greenery such as pine, cedar, fir and spruce, is not the same as the response to true allergens like pollen, dust mites, mold or mildew. The troublemakers in evergreens (and tens of thousands of other aromatic plants) are called terpenes, which are directly responsible for the strong fragrance of these plants. It is the scent not an allergen that elicits the respiratory reaction. The signature “Christmas tree” scent often becomes more pronounced in cut greenery after it is brought into the warmth of the house, where it can cause some people to develop a stuffy nose or cold-like symptoms. Unlike mold or other allergens it does not bring on the production of specific IgE, an antibody responsible for the allergic response to airborne allergens.
“The truth is, the upper respiratory symptoms that are often blamed on the family Christmas tree, can also be caused by other, more typical culprits such as mold spores that can piggyback on the tree or develop in the water container the tree stands in,” explains Dr. Marshall. “There are products you can add to the water that will help inhibit mold growth, but that might not be the only potential problem. Ornaments, stored away in the attic, basement or closet, can become dusty over the years, and contain mold and house dust mites.”
According to Dr. Marshall, there are some things you can do to mitigate the risk of Christmas tree-related problems.
“If you have noticed that one type of greenery seems to affect you more than others, opt for another variety,” notes Marshall. “Pine and cedar are two of the most aromatic evergreens so you may want to steer clear of them. Also, smaller trees are usually less aromatic than large ones.”
Holiday greenery may not be the only source of irritation. Plants such as poinsettias, and other potted varieties contain mold spores in their soil. It’s a good idea to place trees and other plants in well-ventilated areas, preferably away from heat sources. Even artificial trees can cause trouble after being stored where they can become dusty. If your decorations include artificial plants and flowers, thoroughly dust and clean them before using. Change air filters regularly.
“Holiday traditions are important, and those who are affected negatively by something as important as the Christmas tree, can feel like they are ruining the holiday for everybody else if time-honored family practices have to be altered to accommodate them,” notes Marshall. “The additional stress at that time of year and the guilt only make them more prone to the effects.”
“Before you give up on your family traditions, look at the ways you can avoid some of the pitfalls of holiday decorating without having to scrap the whole thing,” advises Dr. Marshall. “Take steps to mitigate the effects of aromatic greenery, reduce exposure to dust and mold, and finally if necessary use topical decongestants or OTC medications to help with symptoms. There are several effective intranasal steroids, such as Flonase, Rhinocort or Nasacort that are now available without a prescription. Check with your primary care provider to get recommendations about which might be best for you. And to help ward off potential problems, start taking them a few days before you begin to deck the halls.”
Gailen D. Marshall, MD., PhD, Allergy and Immunology specialist at University of Mississippi Medical Center, received both his PhD in immunology and MD from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He did internal medicine training at the University of Iowa and completed his residency, chief residency and allergy-immunology fellowship at the University of Tennessee at Memphis.
At UMC, Dr. Marshall is the R. Faser Triplett Sr. MD Chair of Allergy and Immunology, Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, Vice Chair for Research, Director, the Division of Clinical Immunology and Allergy Chief, Laboratory of Behavioral Immunology Research.