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 delight of children of all ages — and to the misery of many who suffer from asthma and allergies.
"You disturb dust and other debris that hasn't been touched for a year," says Dr. Richard Lockey, director of the division of allergy and immunology at USF Health, "and it can certainly cause problems."
And, as if right on cue, colder temperatures have arrived in the bay area, another potential trigger for asthma.
If your symptoms have been under good control but lately you are short of breath, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, have itchy watery eyes, or a runny or stuffy nose, the problem may be seasonal in the fullest sense of the word.
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 the sap of evergreens that is 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," says Lockey.
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.
Finding the problems
Annette Douglas, 48, of Largo recently requested an inspection from the Pinellas County Health Department's Indoor Air Quality Program. She was concerned after a messy plumbing problem left a foul smell in her apartment for weeks, even after professional carpet cleaning. Having just had surgery, she worried that an environmental problem might affect her healing.
Stan Stoudenmire, one of two environmental specialists who cover Pinellas, says most of the calls he gets are over concerns about mold. In addition to common allergens, cigarette smoke, wood smoke, carbon monoxide, off-gassing from new carpets and furniture, sewer gases, household pesticides and cleaning supplies can cause symptoms such as headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, breathing problems, fatigue, reduced productivity, even memory problems, he said.
"We get anywhere from five to 20 calls a day. Physicians will recommend us if a medical approach doesn't seem to help a patient with symptoms," he says.
After visiting Douglas' home Wednesday, Stoudenmire says he found a very moldy air handler and old carpeting, which can harbor dust mites. Both can aggravate allergies and asthma, and Douglas told him that when her grandchildren come to visit, their asthma symptoms do worsen. He took some dust samples back to the office for further checking; it usually takes a week to get a full report.
A home inspection costs $75; many people qualify for a reduced or no-fee visit. Inspections at businesses start at $350.
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 you a long list of repair services.
"They'll come in and tell you to tear out walls, cabinets, plumbing fixtures. If it sounds like you suddenly have an enormous problem and lots of costly repairs, beware," he says. He advises getting a second opinion before doing anything drastic.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org