Allergies may be rooted in Christmas trees

December 06, 2007|By Linda Shrieves | Linda Shrieves,Orlando Sentinel

What's green and festive and makes you sneeze?

It might be your Christmas tree.

Allergists have long suspected that live Christmas trees are the culprits behind some folks' runny, itchy noses during the holidays -- and now one doctor believes he has proof.

"I've been in practice for 30 years and, every year, between Christmas and New Year, we have everybody come in with recurring sinus infections," said Dr. John Santilli, a Connecticut allergy specialist.

"We tell them, `Take down the tree,' but we never had the proof to show them."

Determined to prove his point, Santilli placed a live Christmas tree inside an intern's apartment and took air samples for two weeks. For the first three days, the mold counts inside the apartment hovered around 800 spores per cubic meter of air, compared with a normal range of 500 to 700 spores per cubic meter. But by day 14, the mold count had skyrocketed to 5,000 spores per cubic meter.

"The longer you keep the tree up, the worse it gets," said Santilli, who presented his study at a recent national meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in Dallas. "By the second week, the tree was putting out a bucket of spores. That's when it gets to be a problem, especially if you have asthma or are prone to sinus infections."

Though most of us don't associate mold with Christmas trees, Santilli says the dead tree begins decaying shortly after it's cut.

"Mother Nature's cleanup crew is the mold," he said. "The molds take over and start decaying it."

Although the medical community has long known about "Christmas tree allergy," there has been some debate over what causes the sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes -- pollen or mold.

In 1969, Canadian researchers interviewed 1,657 allergy patients and theorized that as many as 7 percent of people with allergies may also be allergic to their Christmas trees. That team suspected the culprits were pollens that stuck to the Christmas tree and balsam resins.

Santilli, on the other hand, thinks his new research proves that mold may be the biggest problem.

Naturally, the matter remains a prickly issue -- especially for those who sell Christmas trees.

"Being outdoors for years in the field, a Christmas tree can collect pollens, dust, mold or other allergens. Of course, so can the artificial tree stored in the attic or basement," said Rick Dungey, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association.

Not everyone believes that Christmas trees are the only reason for the holiday sniffles.

"We do see the increase of the common cold or sinus infections at the time when families are gathering and so forth," said Dr. Shih-Wen Huang of the University of Florida College of Medicine. "But there are so many reasons why people get sick during that period of time."

Linda Shrieves writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

Trimming allergies

What advice do allergists give people who get the sniffles around their Christmas tree?

If you buy a live tree, ask a friend or family member to hose it down outside. They should probably wear gloves and an allergy mask. Let the tree dry before bringing it indoors. (The same advice applies to fake trees, which tend to accumulate dust and mold while in storage.)

Go to a tree farm and cut your tree yourself. You will be guaranteed that it's fresher than most trees sold on lots -- and it may be less likely to harbor mold.

If your allergies are noticeably bad this time of year, do not bring the tree in the house until Christmas Eve. Toss it out two or three days after Christmas.

Take oral antihistamines before bringing a tree into your house or visiting friends who have one. Keep your prescription allergy medications handy.

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