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Real or artificial Christmas trees — which are worse for allergies?

Are real or artificial Christmas trees worse for people with allergies? We talked to an allergist with seven trees in his home to find out.

Jay Bustard's Christmas tree farm in Lehighton.
Jay Bustard's Christmas tree farm in Lehighton.Read moreErin Blewett / File Photograph

'Tis the season for sneezing?

For allergy sufferers, the age-old debate about whether to have a real or artificial Christmas tree isn’t about which is more convenient, environmentally friendly, or cheaper. It’s about which will lead to less misery.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one right answer, said J. Allen Meadows, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

He would know. An allergist based in Montgomery, Ala., Meadows decorates his home with seven trees, including one with a Star Trek theme and ornaments that blurt Vulcan greetings like, “Happy holidays! Live long and prosper!”

Meadows’ trees are artificial, but he loves live trees as well. Both types come with risks for people with allergies or asthma, he said.

“It’s really a mixed bag,” Meadows said.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania farmers use sweat, science to craft the perfect Christmas tree

Live trees can carry pollen and mold that trigger allergies.

Pine trees pollinate in the spring, so their pollen is inactive by now. But Christmas trees may be coated with weed pollen that begins spreading in the summer and continues floating around until the first freeze, Meadows said.

Tree farms typically shake out live-cut trees before binding them, which can help get rid of loose pollen.

The American Christmas Tree Association suggests using an air compressor to blow off debris, or spraying down the tree with a hose, if you live in a warm, arid climate where it will be able to dry thoroughly.

Meadows suggests letting the tree air out outside for a couple days, with a fresh-cut stump in a bucket of water, before bringing it into your house. Well-watered trees will be less likely to drop needles and pollen that could be inhaled.

» READ MORE: How to pick (and maintain) the perfect Christmas tree this holiday season

People often wrongly assume artificial trees are less likely to provoke allergies, but they can be equally irritating, Meadows said.

New artificial trees emit odors from the manufacturing process, while trees that have been stored may be harboring dust or mold.

Securely storing your tree in a bag or box can help reduce dust. Consider taking artificial trees outside for a good brush-off and airing-out before setting them up, Meadows suggested.

People with allergies and asthma should look beyond the tree for triggers, he said. Vintage tree ornaments and other holiday decorations can kick up dust when unpacked, too.

If you’re worried about air quality, you may also consider skipping the Yule log tradition. Wood-burning fireplaces — even well ventilated ones — can emit fumes that leave asthma sufferers sneezing and wheezing their way through the holiday season.