Contact Dermatitis and Your Christmas Tree

Contact Dermatitis and Your Christmas TreeDuring December many families set the mood for the holiday season with a Christmas tree. However, aside from decorating with lights and ornaments, Christmas trees can also be a source of discomfort and havoc. We would like to take a moment to talk about Christmas trees and some of the reactions people may experience after handling this certain symbol of the season.

What is Christmas Tree Syndrome?

Christmas Tree Syndrome refers to allergic reactions caused by Christmas trees, whether they are real or fake. The syndrome shares several of the symptoms from traditional allergies such as irritated skin, rashes, and disruptions to vital bodily systems such as respiratory complications. Many people misdiagnose their symptoms as the cold, flu, or chalk it up to holiday stress instead of looking for the source of their ailment.

We would like to point out that this is different from the form of psoriasis known as the Christmas Tree Rash. Instead, we will be focusing on the relationship between you and your Christmas tree.

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is one of the larger contributing factors to developing Christmas Tree Syndrome. But what is it? Contact dermatitis occurs on a variety of levels but begins when something comes in contact with your skin and causes a reaction. There are generally two types:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis– an allergic skin reaction caused by plants, metals, medications, latex, food, makeup, heavy fragrances, etc. It is caused by an allergic response after the body encounters an allergy-causing material. The reaction can also occur in areas of the body that did not come in contact with the allergen. These reactions are person-specific as one would need to be allergic to the substance to develop a reaction.
  • Irritant contact dermatitis– a reaction caused by direct contact with a substance and is a result of irritation and a breach on the skins’ surface. Anyone can develop irritant contact dermatitis, unlike allergic contact dermatitis.

Live trees

If you decide to purchase a live tree and are prone to allergies, you are more likely to suffer from Christmas Tree Syndrome. You may experience red, itchy, stinging skin on the hands and forearms, eye irritation, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and other symptoms associated with allergies.

Live trees are great sources of mold as they can carry over 50 different kinds of molds and allergens that may trigger an allergic response. Those with seasonal allergies or asthma may experience a reaction with a higher count of mold spores present in their home. The longer the tree remains in the house, the higher the spore count can become. Homes with central air can even help mold spores to travel throughout the house leaving no escape for those who suffer from allergies.

Mold spores, pine oils, allergens, other natural substances, or even chemicals used to preserve trees on the branches and needles can irritate your skin or enter your immune system triggering a reaction.

Wearing long sleeves and gloves while setting up your tree can prevent most irritation. Make sure the sleeves are long and thick as needles can poke through thin materials allowing oils and spores to live on clothes and transfer to the body quickly.

Artificial trees

An artificial tree may seem like a better option comparatively, but there are still risks and chances of developing Christmas Tree Syndrome with an artificial tree. If mold and oils cause a reaction with live trees, what causes the reaction with artificial? While artificial trees can also gather mold and dust during storage, there is another source of the reaction.

The type of reaction from live trees is often a form of allergic contact dermatitis as it is a reaction to the allergens found within the tree itself such spores, sap, oils, or other allergens.

Christmas Tree Syndrome from artificial trees often refers to irritant contact dermatitis which can develop from any substance that can irritate the outer layer of your skin.

Artificial trees often require fluffing by hand, irritation occurs as hands and arms receive numerous micro-abrasions and scratches from the needles. Dust, dirt, and possible mold particles from the storage or box then enter these cuts traveling deeper into the skin causing more irritation–especially to those with sensitive skin.

Similarly wearing long sleeves and gloves can help prevent irritation from occurring. Also consider wiping down artificial trees before use and storing them in plastic tubs or airtight bags for the rest of the year to keep dust and mold at bay.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of Christmas Tree Syndrome include:

  • Sneezing
  • Skin rash (itchy skin, hot, stinging/burning, dry, scaly skin)
  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Itchy eyes
  • Runny or stuffy nose

Those who suffer from asthma may find their symptoms worsening with exposure to mold or other allergens and may develop anaphylaxis shock due to difficulty breathing from swelling in the throat, or suffer from a swollen face or eyes. If you have any of these symptoms, please seek immediate medical care.

Treatment

The best way to save yourself from Christmas Tree Syndrome is to prevent contact with the irritant as described above. Covering your skin with gloves and thick sleeves as you handle and decorate your tree and then washing clothes immediately after use will help prevent a reaction.

Use an antibacterial soap to rid your skin of any possible irritants and cover the area with a thick layer of unscented lotion to relieve itchiness. Antihistamine pills may also help relieve symptoms in mild cases. However, for more severe reactions, please seek immediate medical attention.

Prevention

Following these suggestions will help prevent you and your loved ones from experiencing Christmas Tree Syndrome.

  • Shake your tree or use a leaf blower to remove any pollen or debris from your tree
  • Thoroughly wash your tree with a hose and let it dry outside or in the garage before bringing it into the house. 
    • An air compression may be a better alternative to avoid drying the tree afterward
    • Spray your tree with a mixture of bleach and water to kill mold spores, it will not harm the tree. Use caution if you have children or pets that may consume needles
    • Do not leave it outside for an extended period as things such as mold may begin to grow 
  • If you have an artificial tree, wipe it down or clean it using compressed air dusters as artificial trees can also introduce dust and mold into your home depending on where and how they are stored.
  • Use thick sleeves and gloves when handling and decorating your tree
  • Clean all ornaments and lights before decorating your tree
  • Use a high-performance air purifier in the same room as the tree to help alleviate symptoms and keep mold spore count in check
  • Minimize exposure by keeping a live tree no more than 4 to 7 days inside the house if you are sensitive to mold or suffer from allergies.
  • Store artificial trees at the end of the year properly to avoid dust and mold from accumulating throughout the year in storage.

By taking these few simple precautions and informing yourself about Christmas Tree Syndrome, you can make your holiday season decorative and delightful without the irritation, extra sneezes, and sniffles. For more information on how to prevent Christmas Tree Syndrome within your household this holiday season, contact Esterson Dermatology today. 

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