Should you clean your Christmas tree and decorations before putting them up?

Cropped hand of woman decorating and hanging baubles on Christmas tree
There may be allergens and other nasties lurking inside your Christmas tree. (Getty Images)

It’s December, and that means it’s time to get the Christmas decorations out, get the tree up and turn the twinkling lights on! However, experts are warning that some people might experience an allergic reaction to both real and artificial Christmas trees, which might take the fun out of decorating.

"Christmas tree syndrome" is an allergic reaction to Christmas trees that results in symptoms similar to hay fever, like sneezing, coughing, and, in some severe cases, asthma attacks.

The reaction can occur if a person comes into contact with either a real tree or an artificial ones, for different reasons. The solution? It might sound far-fetched, but giving your Christmas tree a good, thorough cleaning, or even a wash, might help you avoid the allergies.

The idea of washing a Christmas tree may be unfamiliar to many. On social media, a video shared via X, formerly known as Twitter, went viral last week after a woman showed followers how she washed her artificial tree in her bathtub.

A cleaning content creator, Rhema, shared the video on her TikTok account in November. It showed her putting her entire tree in her bathtub, spraying it down with cleaning fluid and rinsing the branches, with bits of dirt and debris washing down the drain.

The video garnered more than 2.5 million views on TikTok and was later shared to X, where it amassed a further 11.8 million views. Some people commenting on the clip criticised Rhema for participating in "the Clean Olympics" - but expert advice shows she is correct to clean her Christmas tree as it helps get rid of allergens, dust, and other nasties.

What is Christmas tree syndrome?

According to pharmacist Sultan Dajani, from eye infection treatment experts Golden Eye, Christmas tree syndrome describes the increased allergic reactions that some people experience when putting up their tree.

"Symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, and coughing, and also include symptoms that are similar to hay fever, such as itchy, watery eyes with dark circles under them. You may also develop a skin rash, which is known as Christmas Tree dermatitis. People with asthma may suffer from worsening symptoms, which could develop into bronchitis or pneumonia, related to their Christmas tree.”

A man wearing a white turtleneck sitting in front of a decorated Christmas tree in a living room, holding a tissue up to his nose and appearing sickly
'Christmas tree syndrome' might result in symptoms like sneezing, coughing, red and watery eyes, and wheezing. (Getty Images)

What’s in my real Christmas tree?

Dr Alexis Missck, a GP working with UK Meds, tells Yahoo UK that real Christmas trees have pollen, which is a key culprit in triggering allergies in the home.

"While pine pollen is less likely to cause allergic reactions during the winter (as pine trees pollinate in the spring), real Christmas trees collect pollen from other trees and grass pollen," she explains. "When you bring a pine tree into your home, you are also therefore bringing in pollen from the outside, which can cause pollen allergies to flare up."

Aside from sneeze-inducing pollen, real Christmas trees also attract insects, so they may contain dust mites and insect droppings.

"These can cause a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing and asthma symptoms," Dr Missck says. "As well as this, pesticides may be used on pine trees. Pesticides can cause respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, difficulty breathing, chest tightness and coughing. Finally, real Christmas trees may contain mould, which is also linked to asthma and other allergy symptoms."

What’s in my artificial Christmas tree?

If you think you are safer with an artificial Christmas tree, think again. Dr Missck says these can harbour dust, which also resides on any decorations, which can still collect even if you’ve stored them away in a box.

"Dust allergies can lead to a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezy and a flare-up of asthma symptoms," she says, adding: "If the place where you store your tree is warm and humid, it is also possible for mould growth to occur. Finally, again, depending on storage, it is possible that insect droppings may be left on your fake Christmas tree. These can also cause allergic reactions."

kids with mom putting up the christmas tree lights - focus on little girl -
Ensuring the Christmas tree is clean and free of allergens can help everyone in the family enjoy the festivities. (Getty Images)

How do I prevent Christmas tree syndrome?

Suddenly, giving your tree a bath doesn’t sound so bizarre anymore. With real Christmas trees, you can get rid of most allergens by washing it and shaking it out outdoors before bringing it into your home. Dr Missck recommends hosing down both real and fake trees outside and letting it dry before setting it up indoors.

"To tackle any mould spores [in real trees], it may be useful to spray your tree with a solution of water with a small amount of bleach," she adds.

"You should also clean your decorations with a wet cloth to get rid of any dust. Once you are ready to take your tree down, you should throw your real tree away to prevent mould from forming over time and store your fake tree in an airtight container to prevent mould and dust mites."

How can I treat Christmas tree syndrome?

If you're already feeling the effects of Christmas tree syndrome, you can go to your pharmacist for non-drowsy antihistamines or a steroid nasal preparation, Dajani recommends.

It's also important to treat red and watery eyes that might be a result of irritation and allergies, so that they don't worsen and develop into an eye infection. Over-the-counter treatments like Golden Eye Drops and ointment contain antiseptics that will help prevent bacteria from multiplying.

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