PARMA, Ohio — Angela Presti couldn’t wait to decorate her first real Christmas tree with her daughter.
She found the perfect one in a tree lot in Northeast Ohio, brought it into the house and started decorating it. Except a few hours later, she noticed that one side of her face was swollen. She blamed it on TMJ and stress until it got worse.
“My cheek was hot and itchy,” she said.
Then she noticed that her hands, feet and tongue were also swollen.
“My tongue, it felt like I could swallow it, except I couldn’t swallow it and my throat started to close up and my breathing was wheezing,” she said.
Angela called her father who rushed her to UH Parma Medical Center. She collapsed upon arrival and medical staff administered epinephrine.
“They knew right away it was an allergic reaction and kept asking me what I ate, but I knew it was the Christmas tree,” she said.
This didn’t surprise them.
It is estimated that around 7% of the population suffers from what is called Christmas tree syndrome. This is an allergic reaction, not to the tree, but usually to the mold spores coming from the tree.
“It’s quite common and can cause difficulty breathing and skin rashes,” said Samuel Friedlander, MD, an allergist at University Hospitals, who says he frequently sees cases of Christmas tree allergies this time of year. .
Dr. Friedlander says extreme cases like Angela’s are very rare and it’s important for her to see an allergist and have a blood and skin test to determine exactly what’s causing her severe reaction, but her story is a warning to others.
Typically, mold forms after the tree is cut and bundled. Often they get wet in the field or during transport, providing an ideal environment for mold to start growing.
Some studies found more than 50 different types of mold on Christmas trees, but the most common types were Aspergillus, which can be dangerous to people with weakened immune systems. Also Penicillium and Cladosporium, known to cause skin infections and allergic symptoms.
Drew Lipold of AdvantaClean, a mold remediation company, says the risk can be mitigated and shares some tips.
For living trees:
- Water the tree to remove pollen and mold and let it dry before bringing it indoors.
- Wear gloves and long sleeves when carrying the tree to prevent sap from touching your skin.
- Wipe the tree trunk
- Use a leaf blower to remove dust or dead needles
- Throw away the tree the day after Christmas
- Use an air purifier in the room with the tree
Lipold added that depending on how and where the artificial trees have been stored over the past eleven months, they could also cause problems.
For artificial trees:
- Wrap the tree carefully and store it in a cool, dry place.
- Wipe the tree and ornaments dry before installing them.
- Sweep the tree with a vacuum cleaner equipped with a HEPA filter
- Reduce the amount of snow sprayed to frost your tree and windows. Aerosolized chemicals can cause irritating reactions to the eyes, nose or lungs.
And before you start decorating, AdvantaCleans suggests the following.
Dust off the decorations – They have been stored in garages, basements or attics, which are known haunts for mold and dust mites, which carry many allergens. Wipe these decorations carefully with a damp cloth when removing them from storage. After the holidays, package decorations in plastic bags or bins, not cardboard. Cardboard is notorious for accumulating dust and encouraging mold growth.
Avoid scented candles – Candles may also cause respiratory distress in people with severe allergies or asthma. Some petroleum-based scented candles can produce soot, as well as irritating particles and gases, and may be problematic for people with severe allergies and asthma. Candles made from soy, hemp, beeswax, or even battery operated ones may be a better option.
Angela spent part of her weekend in the hospital and eventually gave her tree to her neighbor, but she still suffers from congestion and difficulty breathing in her home. She called an air duct cleaning service to remove any remaining mold from the house because opening the windows wasn’t helping.
“I never imagined that a Christmas tree could have something in it that could kill me,” she said.
Dr. Friedlander says there is only one solution to this type of allergy. “Start using artificial trees,” he said.
More from Monica Robins: