When to worry about an allergic reaction
Are your Christmas decorations triggering your allergies?
What if your cold-like symptoms aren't due to a cold at all, but caused by your Christmas decorations? You may be allergic to the dust mites, mould or pollen that inhabit your Christmas decorations.
Why are my allergies so bad at Christmas?
You might think that a blocked or runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, sneezing and coughing over the Christmas season are signs that you have a cold. While the common cold has a high circulation rate in winter, these symptoms could also be triggered by your Christmas decorations.
Professor Michael Rudenko, medical director of the London Allergy and Immunology Centre, explains that many people can get unpleasant allergy symptoms around Christmas time.
It's thought that in the UK and USA, around 35% of people experience cold or hay-fever-like symptoms at Christmas. In most cases, these are in fact seasonal allergies to the dust mites, mould and pollen that Christmas trees and other decorations bring into our homes.
Allergies occur when our bodies overreact to particular substances, triggering our immune systems to produce antibodies. These antibodies 'fight' the foreign cells by releasing chemical substances, and it is these substances that trigger allergic reactions.
Dusty Christmas decorations
We store our Christmas decorations for most of the year, and over this time they are likely to collect dust. Where there is dust, there are dust mites - tiny creatures with proteins in their droppings that can trigger allergies in some people.
According to Allergy UK, house dust mite allergy is very common, affecting around 12 million of us in Great Britain. No house is completely free of dust mites, but areas that have been allowed to accumulate a lot of dust - like stored Christmas decorations - can trigger allergy flare-ups.
Research into dust mite allergy symptoms has found that people sneeze a lot, have runny or blocked-up noses, and in more severe cases feel tired or weak. Dust mite allergy is associated with:
- Asthma - a lung condition where allergens can trigger airways to narrow.
- Eczema (also called dermatitis) - a skin condition which can be inflamed by allergens.
- Allergic rhinitis (also called persistent or perennial rhinitis) - which can affect the nose, throat and sinuses.
Allergies to Christmas trees
They may make us feel festive, but bringing real Christmas trees into the house can occasionally also trigger allergic reactions in some of us. While pine tree allergy - sometimes called Christmas tree syndrome - is unusual, the mould, pollen and dust that collect in the trees are slightly more common allergen culprits.
As Christmas trees can bring these three types of allergens into the home, there is also a strong connection between Christmas trees and allergic reactions in people with asthma. Trees can trigger asthma attacks where the airways constrict, which causes difficulty breathing and wheezing.
Not everyone who experiences an allergic reaction around Christmas trees has asthma, and likewise not everyone with asthma has a problem with Christmas trees. However, for some asthmatics the mould, pollen, dust, and even the pine smell, can trigger asthma symptoms, according to Asthma UK.
"There are significant numbers of people who are allergic to the mould known as Alternaria. This mould spore can start growing on a newly installed Christmas tree," professor Rudenko explains.
"Alternaria is one of the most important among the allergenic fungi. It occurs on many plants and other substrates, including foodstuffs and textiles. It is also one of the most common mould spores found in dwelling dust and in condensation on window frames. Alternaria is reported to result in allergic rhinitis and asthma in sensitised individuals."
The mould spores - or 'seeds' - living on Christmas trees travel through the air and we inhale them. The symptoms of mould allergy are very similar to the symptoms of other allergies, such as sneezing, a runny nose, itching, a blocked nose, and dry, cracked skin.
Christmas tree pollen
People who are allergic to pollen experience symptoms of hay fever, which is more commonly described as seasonal allergic rhinitis. Hay fever symptoms usually occur in the spring and summer when tree and weed pollens are active. However, although pollen is inactive in winter, Christmas trees may still contain pollen.
Pollen travels through the air easily, and it can enter our nose, eyes and lungs - in some people, this can trigger an allergic reaction.
It's not just bringing our dusty decorations out of storage that can cause allergy flare-ups. We can also bring in a lot of dust mites on our Christmas trees. Both real and artificial Christmas trees can be covered in dust mites.
Allergy to house dust mites is the main cause of perennial or persistent rhinitis. Unlike hay fever, which can cause similar symptoms in certain seasons due to pollen allergy, this type of rhinitis can be present all year round, because house dust mites are found at every time of year. In fact, people with persistent rhinitis often find their symptoms are worse in winter because they spend more time outside, away from the mites, over the summer.
If you store an artificial tree each year, be sure to wipe it down with a damp cloth to remove dust before you put it up.
How to tell if you have a Christmas tree allergy?
The symptoms of dust mite, mould and pollen allergies are all very similar and it may be difficult to tell what type of allergy you have. The symptoms are much the same to that of a cold or hay fever. This is also true of pine tree allergy symptoms, although being allergic to the tree itself is much rarer.
Christmas scented candles
According to Allergy Easy, around 1 in 5 people report allergic reactions to scented candles. Many candles are made from paraffin wax which is derived from coal, petroleum, or shale oil. When lit, this can release chemicals that are particularly harmful for people with respiratory problems.
Thse with asthma can be especially sensitive to fragranced products such as scented candles. A 2018 study found that 64.3% of people with asthma reported having one or more allergic reactions after being exposed to fragranced products.
Tips and treatment for allergies
Tips to avoid dusty decorations
- When unpacking your decorations, wipe them down with a damp cloth.
- When you pack up your decorations, use airtight bags or boxes.
Asthma UK's tips to avoid flare-ups of asthma
- Get an artificial tree if a real Christmas tree has triggered your symptoms before.
- Hose down the tree before you bring it into the house.
- Keep the tree in the coolest part of the house where spores are less likely to multiply.
- Put the tree outside straightaway if you notice your asthma symptoms getting worse.
Tips to avoid scented candle-related allergies
- Go scentless or flame-free.
- Use beeswax candles which don't have many of the chemicals found in paraffin candles.
- Use aromatherapy candles which use plant-based extracts rather than synthetic scents.
- Choose candles with natural cotton wicks.
Rudenko also advises those who suffer badly at Christmas to seek treatment: "There are methods of both symptomatic treatment and, for people with severe symptoms, long-term treatments known as desensitisation and immunotherapy. These can help to keep Christmas the most wonderful time of the year."