Do I need to worry about my Christmas tree? Here's how to avoid fires and choking hazards this holiday season

(Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell for Yahoo News; Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell for Yahoo News; Photo: Getty Images) ((Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell for Yahoo News; Photo: Getty Images))

For many, twinkly lights and shiny ornaments on a tree is what marks the beginning of the Christmas season. And while that jazzed-up evergreen is sure to spread holiday cheer, there are a few points experts want you to be aware of in order to keep your house, family and even pets safe around the fir.

Stop fires before they start

Whether you opt for artificial or the real thing, Christmas trees are a fire risk. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), firefighters respond to more than 200 calls a year due to Christmas tree fires.

Dr. Max Lazarus, medical director of the departments of emergency and hospitalist medicine with the Montefiore Health System in New York, says that one reason Christmas trees might be at risk of going up in flames is that they are "often connected to or near multiple sites of electrical current," and that "the lights and other decorations can get hot when left on for a long time or near a heat source, like a fireplace or a heater."

Turning off Christmas tree lights before bed, or when you are not home, can help avoid them overheating. LED lights also produce less heat than incandescent ones, making them a safer option, per the Department of Energy.

Further, make sure you're using lights that say, on the label that they have been safety tested and approved by OSHA-certified laboratories, like Underwriters Laboratory (UL), which tests for fire and electrical safety.

While a super-bright tree may seem especially festive, Lazarus says it’s important not to string together more than three sets of incandescent lights, as well as to not “overload electrical outlets” in general, which can lead to an electrical fire.

If you decide to go with a natural tree, there are additional risk factors to consider. For example, according to NIST, a watered Christmas tree may be less of a hazard than a dry one, as it’s less likely to catch fire should it be exposed to an ignition source. So be sure to keep that conifer hydrated by adding water to its stand — at least a gallon a day for a six-footer, according to Home Depot, which recommends a stand that will provide at least one quart of water per inch of stem diameter. Additionally, you can use a spray bottle to mist the needles once a day.

Picking out a healthy, fresh tree from the get-go is also important because it’s less likely to dry out during the time you have it on display. When your tree does dry out and die, though, it’s important to remove it from your home to avoid additional risk.

Avoiding pet problems

For some pets, a Christmas tree can be an invitation to climb and chew — leading to safety issues for both the creatures and their humans. So it’s important to take precautions.

Nicole Ellis, a certified dog trainer and an expert with the Pet People Panel, says to make sure your tree "has a solid base, so should your pet find a way to leap onto that, the tree won't topple over." She also notes that it can be helpful to “keep furniture away from your tree, such as chairs and couches that will help your pet get an extra boost to jump.”

Ornaments can also pose a risk to pets, Ellis says.

“Make sure any items that may potentially fall won't break and shatter,” she says. “Cats are known to swipe at ornaments. Consider tying ornaments to your tree — the higher the better — to prevent them from easily being knocked off.”

Tinsel, she says, is also quite enticing to felines, but can be “quite dangerous if ingested.” Instead, she opts for “ribbon, wool garland or paper strings.”

If you’re concerned about your kitty being tempted by the tree, she notes that “cats generally don't like the smell of apple cider vinegar or citrus scents, you can place a few pinecones with apple cider vinegar at the bottom of your tree. They also generally don't like touching tin foil, so you can cover some areas with that if needed too.”

Keeping kids safe

Young children, just like pets, may be drawn to a sparkly tree — especially the ornaments, says Dr. Marc Auerbach, a Yale Medicine pediatric emergency medicine physician.

“The most common thing I see every year during the holiday season is ingestion of ornaments or lights, which is especially a concern for toddlers under 2, who are exploratory, and often put things in their mouths that can be a choking hazard,” he says. “Toddlers at that age often bite ornaments or lights and break them.”

He adds that ornaments can be particularly risky, as they are about the diameter of a trachea, making them a choking hazard. "They are also sharp, which can injure the mouth or esophagus," he notes.

In addition, "children have also been known to bite light strings as well, which can lead to an electrical burn in the mouth and on the lips," he says. "Young children just learning to walk may be particularly at risk for tripping on Christmas tree wires as well."

Paying close attention to young children around a Christmas tree can help avoid these pitfalls.