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Originally published Monday, December 13, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Christmas trees and decorations may trigger allergies

Tips on reducing allergy symptoms during the holidays include cleaning decorations — even the Christmas tree.

St. Petersburg Times

Time to pull the boxes out of the attic, hang up the wreath and wrap your house in lights and garland. Holiday decorations are making their annual debut, to the misery of some who suffer from asthma and allergies.

"You disturb dust and other debris that hasn't been touched for a year and it can certainly cause problems," says Dr. Richard Lockey, director of the allergy and immunology division at USF Health in Tampa.

If your symptoms have been under good control but lately you are short of breath, sneezing, wheezing or coughing, or have itchy, watery eyes or a runny or stuffy nose, the problem may be seasonal.

On top of stored decorations, bringing fresh Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands and holiday plants inside can also trigger symptoms. Some people are allergic to a substance called terpene in evergreens' sap; it's released when the trunk or branches are cut. "We're not sure it's a true response to evergreens, but there's no question that some people feel cut Christmas trees make their asthma worse," Lockey says.

Sometimes, trees and plants carry mold or pollen indoors on their branches. Artificial trees can become covered in sneeze-inducing dust if not stored in airtight containers.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology suggests going over your tree with a leaf blower in a well-ventilated place outside to remove some of the accumulated allergens. Or spray your holiday tree, live or artificial, with a garden hose and allow it to dry in a garage or on a covered porch before bringing it inside.

By the same token, take dusty boxes of decorations outside to clean them off before bringing them into living areas.

As if all those seasonal hazards weren't enough, consider this: According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, most of us spend 90 percent of our time indoors — and indoor air can be more harmful than what's outdoors.

From things you can smell, like oven cleaners and bathroom mold, to those that are odorless, like carbon monoxide and radon, indoor air can be hazardous to your health.

Stan Stoudenmire, an environmental specialist for the Pinellas County (Fla.) Health Department's indoor air-quality program, says his office handles five to 20 calls a day. Most callers express concerns about mold. Other irritants include cigarette smoke, wood smoke, carbon monoxide, off-gassing from new carpets and furniture, sewer gases, household pesticides and cleaning supplies. These can cause symptoms such as headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, breathing problems, fatigue, reduced productivity, even memory problems, he said.

Most people notice improvement after a good housecleaning and changing air filters, Stoudenmire says. Sometimes plumbing and roof work are needed to repair leaks, or air handlers need professional cleaning to remove mold. In extreme cases, damp or moldy drywall may have to be replaced.

But Stoudenmire cautions consumers against private companies that offer inspections and then try to sell a long list of repair services. He advises getting a second opinion before doing anything drastic.

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Lockey says people with asthma and allergy symptoms need to be sure to get a flu shot — and wash hands frequently, stay home if sick and take medications as prescribed.

The allergy college suggests these measures to breathe easier:

• Clean. If someone in your household suffers from asthma and allergies, establish a good cleaning schedule and consider clearing out potential sources of trouble.

• Vacuum frequently, at least twice a week.

• Consider getting a HEPA vacuum cleaner, which catches the smallest dust particles.

• Avoid "dry" dusting, which sends dust airborne.

• Keep pets out of bedrooms.

• Get rid of carpeting and older upholstered furniture that harbor dust and dust mites.

• Replace draperies with easier to clean blinds.

• Regularly replace air filters.

Irene Maher: imaher@sptimes.com

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