4th December 2013 – Millions of us will buy a Christmas tree in the next few weeks, 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. Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services at Allergy UK, tells BootsWebMD that the problem lies with mould.
"The trees grow in damp conditions so they will be a perfect place for mould spores to grow," she says.
"Initially you might be alright after it first comes in but after so many days, or the dreaded weeks that some people have them up, it can be quite serious."
She says the situation is made worse by central heating, family and friends gathering in the living room to celebrate, and doors being shut to keep out drafts.
A US study
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.
Maureen Jenkins says these moulds can also lead to "watery, itchy, or sore eyes and a blocked or runny nose, and sometimes difficulty breathing", and not just in those with asthma.
She says that one problem is that the mould spores on the tree are easily distributed around the living environment. "In most houses they get knocked or bashed, or the kids are playing with it," she says.
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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