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Are You Decking the Halls with Asthma and Allergy Triggers?

For many, the sight and smell of the Christmas tree is just the thing to put them in the holiday mood – tiny lights peppering a fir, pine, or spruce like hundreds of stars and ornaments that spark decades of wonderful memories. The crisp scent of your tree somehow makes the house smell fresh and clean. As you carefully decorate your home for the holidays, you’re probably spending considerable time making your home a safe, welcoming place for your family and friends to gather. But, at the risk of sounding like a humbug, we want to share some not-so-merry information about the holiday season. Studies have revealed a rise in hospital visits for asthma and other respiratory issues around Christmas, and your holiday decorations – including that beautiful tree that you've just erected in the corner – could be responsible.  As you plan your holiday gatherings, consider ways that you can reduce asthma and allergy triggers in your home.   

Christmas Trees and Wreaths 

Did you know that live trees could increase the risk of wheezing, persistent cough, and allergic sensitization in infants? A study, performed by staff at the SUNY Upstate Medical University, supported by the Children’s Environmental Health Centers of New York, and published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, looked into the connection between epidemic peaks in respiratory illness the weeks before and the week after December 25 in children and adults.
The study found that Christmas trees, including their needles and bark, from a range of species, carried about 50 types of mold, two-thirds of which could lead to shortness of breath, watery eyes, sinus congestion, feelings of fatigue, and problems sleeping. Some of the molds identified can lead to long-term lung problems and conditions, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Mold spores occur naturally, but the spores thrive in warm conditions, such as your living room. Plus, as the tree decays, the number of airborne mold spores increases dramatically. 

Artificial trees that have been stored improperly can also be a trigger. While in storage, they can accumulate significant amounts of mold spores, dust, and other irritants. 

Other Holiday Triggers  

Other holiday decorations can also trigger asthma attacks and allergies. Here are some of the most common seasonal indoor allergy triggers to avoid:

  • Candles and fragrances – seasonal scents and the warm glow of candles make them a popular choice during the holidays. The fragrances and soot given off by candles can trigger sensitivity in people with allergies or asthma. Besides creating a health hazard, the soot, small particles from paraffin wax, can damage your computers and other electrical appliances.
  • Wood-burning fireplaces – a cozy fire is welcome on a cold winter day; however, a wood-burning fireplace could also be a source for allergy and asthma triggers

Here are some tips to protect your home and family from allergy and asthma triggers during the holidays: 

  • Hose down your tree and let it dry before you bring it inside, whether it’s a fresh-cut variety or you’re getting your artificial tree out of storage. 
  • Remove a live tree soon after Christmas Day. 
  • Have your fireplace and chimney inspected and cleaned every year by a professional. 
  • Instead of a fireplace screen, opt for a fireplace with an insert or a retrofit
  • Avoid using sprays or scented candles with strong fragrances. 
  • Avoid paraffin candles. They’re a petroleum byproduct and release gaseous pollutants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter into the air.
Don’t mistake us for Ebenezer Scrooge! It's just that we love the holidays and want to ensure that everyone in your family can enjoy them to the fullest. And you can with some minor modifications to your already thorough holiday preparations. We wish you a safe and healthy holiday season from our NCHH family to yours!

More Resources

EPA Burn Wise Program for Wood Burning – Tip Sheets
Environmental Health and Safety - Fire Prevention Guidelines for Tree Safety
University of Illinois Extension – Christmas Tree Selection and Care
Cleveland Clinic – Best Ways to Prevent Air Pollution
NCHH – Ensuring Asthma-Safe Homes 
Center for Excellence in Children’s Environmental Health – Healthy Home, Home Hazards: Mold
Preventative Medicine Reports – Health and societal effects from exposure to fragranced consumer products.

Decorating for the Holidays: How to Hang Your Lights Safely This Year

Jingle all the the ER? According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are about 12,000 or more reported emergencies involving holiday lighting each year. But that’s certainly not what you want to be thinking about when you’re gathered round the tree.

The best present you can give yourself this year is a little peace of mind. And that’s not too hard to do when you follow best practices for seasonal lighting. With the proper equipment and lighting techniques, you can avoid a holiday disaster, and still get the most beautiful lights on the block.

Replace Incandescent String Lights with LEDs

LED lights usually get promoted solely for their energy efficiency—but they also run much cooler than incandescent lights, as well. In consumer testing, LEDs ran over 200 degrees cooler than comparable incandescent lights, a trend that translates over to your seasonal decorations, as well. Cooler lights means less danger for combustion, so LEDs are typically considered safer than their incandescent counterparts.

Of course, simply purchasing LED lights can’t root out every problem. You also need to make sure you use safe practices with extension cords and outlets, as well. But they can certainly eliminate some of the risks associated with decorating—which is definitely one way to make things merry and bright!

Use Caution When Hanging Exterior Lights

We’ve all seen the damage that can come from improper lighting techniques (if not, stop reading this article, watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and come back). However, unlike in the realm of fiction, accidents here can result in serious injuries that are nothing to laugh about.

If you’re hanging lights high, make sure that you have a sturdy ladder, and stand it on even ground. Move the ladder as you go instead of reaching too far to your left or your right. Invest in a set of light holders rather than using nails or a staple gun—and give yourself some extra cookies for being smarter than Clark Griswold.

Look Your Lights Over

A lot can happen in a year while lights are stored away in the attic. Make sure to give every strand a visual inspection—and don’t chance it with frayed or damaged lights.

Plug string lights in before hanging them. If they don’t light up, then they’re no good to you anyway, and it will save you the hassle of hanging your lights, only to have to take them all down again. And who needs that wasted time during this busy season?

Use the Proper Lights, Cords, and Outlets

Minus the right equipment, even the most magical light display can go sour fast. If you’re putting lights outdoors this year, make sure both the lights and any extension cords you use are rated for exterior use. Lights should be waterproof, as well, to protect them from wintry weather. Also, check that your cords are UL-approved—this independent consumer safety group tests commercial electrical products to verify their safety.

Outlets, too, need to be chosen with safety in mind. Install lights on a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet. As the name suggests, this kind of outlet will interrupt the electrical circuit if the outlet becomes overloaded. Obviously, you should avoid plugging too many different lights into the same outlet, as well, but this will help you avoid sparks if you happen to go overboard.

With some lighting smarts, the only fires you’ll be seeing this year will be for those roasting chestnuts! Wishing you and your family a happy and safe holiday!


Erin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener, and aspiring homeowner. She currently resides in Austin, TX, where she writes full time for Modernize with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.

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