photo of woman sneezing next to a lit Christmas tree.

Are You Allergic to Christmas?

Every year around Christmastime, like clockwork, it happens. Instead of being flooded with holiday cheer, you’re flooded with sneezing, a runny nose and red, itchy, watery eyes. It’s almost as if you’re allergic to Christmas, and in a sense, you are. Don’t worry that doesn’t make you a Scrooge or a Grinch. It just means you might be allergic to some of the things that come with the holiday season: mountain cedar and live Christmas trees.

If you’re allergic to mountain cedar, chances are you already know, but Gary Gross, allergist/immunologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas, said the holiday season comes with its own set of special circumstances and illnesses, so deciphering if it’s a cold or allergies can be difficult.

“People get sick around Christmastime and there are many reasons,” Gross said. “It’s a time when people are not getting much rest, they’re going to parties and being around other people who may be sick, and because it is a time when a lot of people are having company and there are a lot of functions, people are actually under more stress. So, there are a lot of background events that go into not feeling your best around Christmastime.”

But if you consistently find yourself sick with the same symptoms every year around the holidays, it may be more than just the common cold; you may be suffering from seasonal allergies.

“Cedar pollen is the only pollen that is in the air in the winter and it just happens to peak around Christmas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” Gross said. “So, some people who are sick every Christmas, attribute it to a cold, but then realize that they have the same symptoms in the spring. Then they start putting it together and figure this must be allergy-involved, see an allergy specialist, and find out they’re allergic to mountain cedar, among other things.”

Decoding the cause of your symptoms gets a little more difficult when live Christmas trees are involved. If you’re allergic to either pollen or mold, then the tree can trigger an allergic reaction and even asthma in a number of ways, from your run-of-the-mill allergy symptoms to contact dermatitis, a skin rash caused by coming into contact with an allergen.

“We’ve seen patients that only have their asthma when the tree is in the house, and when they got the tree out of the house, their symptoms got better,” said Gross. “So, clearly you can associate the symptoms with the tree, and usually they replace the tree with an artificial one.”

However, if you don’t suffer from asthma, the elimination process of what could be triggering your symptoms can get a little hard to piece together because your symptoms may not happen as soon as the tree goes into the house, or even every year.

For instance, if this year you get a tree that’s been sitting out on the tree lot for a long time and it’s had time to grow mold spores, you may have a reaction to the mold and not the tree. But next year, you could purchase the tree a little sooner, just by happenstance, leaving the tree with less time to grow mold, and you might not react at all to it. If this cycle continues over a long period of time, it can be hard to place the tree at the top of the list of possibilities as to why you’re getting sick.

“It’s kind of like a detective story,” Gross said. “You’ve got to figure out what the essence of the plot might be and then you can figure out why the person is sick. But in theory, if it’s the Christmas tree, you should be worse in the house and if it’s the pollen in the air, you should be worse outside the house.”

Although it’s not a common allergy, Gross said people are generally not too shocked when they hear the tree has been causing their symptoms.

“They either already think that could be a cause and don’t want to admit it or think it’s unlikely, but when you diagnose it, you’re just confirming what they already may have suspected.”

If you know or suspect you’re allergic to mold, Gross suggested washing the tree off with a hose before bringing it into the house to try to remove as many of the mold spores as possible. To reduce the amount of debris that is on the tree, you can also try shaking the tree out.

If you find yourself allergic to the tree itself, not just the mold, but you don’t want to switch over to an artificial tree, there are a couple of options you can choose from. For starters, you can try out different varieties of Christmas trees to find which ones work for you and which don’t. Many Texas tree farms carry different varieties of cedar, pine and cypress trees, so if you find you’re allergic to one, you can try the next.

If the process of elimination seems too long for you, you can turn to immunotherapy, or allergy shots, to reduce your sensitivity to the tree, but keep in mind that immunotherapy isn’t a quick fix. It can take at least a year to start feeling the benefits of the shots, and people generally receive the shots on a regular basis for three to five years to truly reduce their sensitivity.

Rather stick to a quick fix? Gross said there are many good over-the-counter allergy medications that may prevent your symptoms. If you know where you’re headed is going to have a live tree or decorations that will trigger your allergies, he suggested taking a non-sedating antihistamine or nasal spray an hour before going out.

Since there are so many outside factors involved with the holiday season, it can take many years to connect the dots, but if you suspect your symptoms may be less of a cold and more of an allergic reaction to your tree, it may be time to see your doctor.

“There’s nothing that will distinguish it from any other allergy, so it may be the cat or the Christmas tree. There’s just no way of differentiating.” Gross said. “Your clues are really the timing, so if it starts when or shortly after the tree came into the house and if you recognize it clears when the tree goes out of the house, it’s most likely the tree.”

If you think you have allergies and need to find a physician, use our helpful Find a Physician tool.

Need a little help figuring out if it’s allergies or just a cold? Learn how to tell the difference with help from one of our experts.

2 Comments

  • Foster Byrd says:

    Note: Certain scented candles can also trigger the senses affecting your nose
    and eyes. I try to avoid the aisle containing multiple flavors of scented candles
    in stores since some scents, even when not burning, cause my nose and eyes
    to water. Some auto air fresheners also trigger the same response when used
    in my vehicle.

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