It’s a centrepiece of the festive season in many homes – but your Christmas tree could actually end up KILLING you .
The shock news comes as one in three Brits are experiencing health reactions to the seasonal feature, which might look harmless, but could end up causing life-threatening pneumonia.
And if you’re thinking of switching to an artificial tree, beware of its layer of dust which may cause a set of its own problems.
The runny nose and cough that many of us associate with this time of year may well be caused by the mould harboured by the tree – and the longer your tree is up, the worse you could feel.
Research says that 35 per cent of people surveyed suffer from an increase of hay fever-like symptoms over the festive season, with pine Christmas trees causing most of the problems, according to a recent poll for Prevalin Allergy.
Dubbed Christmas Tree Syndrome, symptoms include itchy nose, watery eyes, wheezing, coughing, chest pains, lethargy and insomnia – and even lead to pneumonia in rare serious cases.
Boffins discovered the condition after they saw an increase in respiratory problems in the weeks leading up to and shortly after December 25.
The scientists, from Upstate Medical University, part of the State University of New York, found that when they analysed pine needles and bark from 28 Christmas trees, they found 53 cases of mould.
This mould releases spores that can trigger allergic reactions in people who are susceptible.
While it is naturally occurring, the process of bringing the tree inside creates the perfect environment for it to grow.
Another study found that after two weeks of being on display, the number of airborne mould spores coming from a Christmas tree increases from 800 per 35 cubic feet to 5,000.
Not everybody will experience symptoms when exposed to these mould spores.
Dr Lawrence Kurlandsky, who conducted the research, said in his report: “If you and your children don’t have any obvious allergies, then it is probably not going to bother you.”
The team found that the mould in highest quantities on Christmas trees – aspergillus, penicillium, cladosporium and alternaria – are the ones most likely to trigger allergies.
Moulds naturally occur on the pines, but flourish rapidly when brought into centrally heated environments of our homes.
Around 10 per cent of the people with allergy-based asthma have attacks triggered by mould, and cladosporium is one of the main culprits.
The number of cladosporium spores often increase at this time of year anyway because they are typically found among rotting leaves or compost heaps.
Signs that your tree may be making you ill are if you suddenly have an asthma attack after the tree is brought indoors or if your nose suddenly starts running and you are sneezing, even though you don’t feel as if you have a cold.
For some people the effects of the mould can be severe. In around one in 500 people, such as those with a compromised immune system, the mould will settle and grow inside their airways, and will cause the sudden onset of a cough and fatigue that won’t shift.
A spokesman for the London Allergy Clinic said: “Someone with a lot of allergies can react to simply the smell of the Christmas tree, which comes from the pine resin, and it can trigger sneezes and wheezes in some people.
“Also, if someone already has a respiratory allergy – such as to a pet or dust mites – then the lining of their nose is already over-secreting and sensitive and the mould on the Christmas tree may make the symptoms of their normal allergy worse.
“‘If your symptoms get worse in the room where the tree is and especially when you get close to the tree, for example, as you take presents off it, then it is safe to say the allergen causing your problems is coming from the tree.”
Experts recommend spraying it with a mild bleach solution just before you take the tree into the house, as this will help kill off the mould.
If you are suffering from mild sneezes or just a bit of a runny nose, then take antihistamines.
Nasal sprays are the best because they work directly on the nasal passages where the allergic reaction to the mould is triggered.
Allergens expert, Max Wiseberg said even switching to an artificial tree has its problems.
“If you have stored your tree since last year, it will have accumulated a layer of dust which will be dispersed when it is disturbed.
“So consider how your store your artificial tree when it’s not in use – packing it away in a sealed box will mean less dust accumulates.
“Also, give it a good clean when you get it out of storage – ideally outside or away from the living room, so that you’re not simply displacing the dust around the room.
“Hosing down your tree before taking it into the house, or after getting it out of storage, can help get rid of some of the mould and spores – though it’s probably best to get someone who isn’t allergic to do this!
“You should also take care when decorating the tree, or again get someone else to do it, as allergens will be disturbed as you move the tree into position and move the branches to hang the baubles and add the lights.”
Putting up the tree as late as possible will help minimise the risk, whilst an air purifier may also help.