'Tis the season to be -- sniffly? The winter months may hail the end of high pollen counts, but the holiday season has a slew of allergy woes all its own.
Add indoor dust allergies and possible irritants such as scented candles or preservatives sprayed on Christmas trees, and a very sniffly holiday season may be in store.
Although it's not unheard of to tear up at the sight of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, it wasn't nostalgia that made Devin Brown's eyes water on his first Christmas. It was the tree itself.
Raised Jewish, the New York City resident didn't experience Christmas trees as a routine part of the holidays until his mother remarried when he was 9. That December, Brown was excited when his stepdad brought home a real Christmas tree. But the new festivities produced a little more excitement than he bargained for.
"I started putting on the lights and all of a sudden I had puffy eyes and was sneezing. It took a little while to realize that I was actually allergic to the tree," Brown, 35, says.
It wasn't the tree, per se, that bothered Brown. It was a substance in the oil and sap of the pine called terpene. For allergic individuals, contact with evergreens used for garland, wreathes, and Christmas trees -- especially when they are fresh-cut and shedding needles -- can cause skin rashes, itchy, watery eyes and sneezing.
Since that ill-fated first Christmas, Brown has had to be careful about staying away from cut pine trees, garland and wreathes.
"If I walk past the pine tree stands in the city, I start sneezing," he says, recalling a scare when, as a joke, a classmate threw a wreath around his neck like a collar; bad news for someone with a terpene allergy.
Needless to say, most Brown family Christmases since have featured an artificial tree.
While terpene allergies are relatively rare, milder allergic reactions to the chemical sprays used to preserve Christmas trees, pollen on the trees or the mold that can grow while they're sitting in the lot are much more common.
"Live Christmas trees are actually dead, of course, and stuck in a pot of water," Dr. Michael Daines, a pediatric allergist in Cincinnati, says. "Various molds that are usually only outdoor allergens are brought inside with the tree and can cause symptoms."
Dr. Clifford Bassett, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York, says, "people come into the office with watery eyes and a runny nose -- they don't consider themselves to have allergies. But [if you point it out], they'll note that they have this problem every year around the holidays. I like to call it 'Christmas Tree Allergy Syndrome.'"
Bassett suggests using a leaf blower outside to blow pollen off you and washing the tree -- especially the trunk -- with a garden hose when you bring it home. Let it dry in the garage before decorating.
Though pollen counts are usually not a concern come December, the use of certain flowers in holiday decorations, especially centerpieces, can cause pseudo-allergic reactions for guests and family members.