Millions of us buy a Christmas tree in December each year, but could our new festive housemate end up needling us in more ways than one.
You might have heard of 'Christmas Tree Syndrome' and dismissed it as just another bah humbug health scare dreamt up for this time of year. However experts say that for some of us, living with a forest fir tree in our house for several weeks, is the cause of a range of health problems.
Evergreen trees in winter have held a special place in folklore, and Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert is often been credited with popularising the Christmas tree fashion in Britain because of its long tradition in his native Germany.
However, it has not always contributed to a happy Christmas, according to those susceptible to allergies. Allergy UK says the problem lies with mould. The trees grow in damp conditions so they can be a perfect place for mould spores to grow.
People can be fine when the tree first arrives, but after some days or weeks, symptoms can begin.
The situation can be made worse by central heating, family and friends gathering in the living room to celebrate, and doors being shut to keep out drafts.
One US study which investigated evidence for 'Christmas tree syndrome' found that respiratory illnesses peaked in people of all age groups in the weeks either side of December 25th. An examination of levels of airborne mould spores in an apartment increased from 800 spores per cubic metre before the arrival of a Christmas tree to 5,000 spores per cubic metre after 2 weeks.
That same year, staff from Upstate University in New York provided clippings from 28 Christmas trees for microbiological analysis, which yielded 53 cases of mould.
Coughs, wheezing, sore eyes
The authors concluded: "Most moulds that were identified are potential allergens and have been shown to increase the risk of wheeze, persistent cough, and allergic sensitisation in infants." However, the study did not rule out the possibility that these moulds were already present before the Christmas trees were brought into the home.
These moulds can also lead to watery, itchy, or sore eyes and a blocked or runny nose, and sometimes difficulty breathing, even in people who don’t have asthma.
Mould spores on the tree are easily distributed around the living environment because in most homes they get knocked or bashed, especially if children play with the tree.
Artificial tree or real one?
The advice from Allergy UK is to make sure live Christmas trees are washed down thoroughly before being brought into the house. An even safer bet is to opt for an artificial tree, but even with these it is important to wash them before they are packed away and stored.
However, it is not just the traditional Christmas tree that can store up problems for people with allergies. Wreaths, or any other item incorporating live greenery, can cause the same problems.
Also, stay clear of stressful situations, as these are known to trigger asthma and other allergy symptoms. And, let's be honest, there are few dates in the calendar more stressful than Christmas.
Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services, Allergy UK.
'Identification of mold on seasonal indoor coniferous trees', Dr Lawrence Kurlandsky et al, Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 2011.
'Allergies during the Christmas break', WebMD medical reference.
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