Ah, Texas, what a wonderful place to live. Wide-open spaces, good food (thanks to our state’s remarkable cultural diversity), and lots of nature. Where else can you go saltwater fishing at 3 pm, have a five-star Japanese-TexMex fusion dinner at 5, and catch a live concert at a local rodeo by 7?
But for many Texans, all that amazingness comes at a price: year-round allergies. That’s right, Texas may be the coolest state in the Union, but it’s also the itchiest and most nasally congested. Not only are winter allergies a thing in Texas, but winter is also the state’s worst season for allergies. While the residents of most states get a break after Jack Frost’s icy breath freezes away all those pesky pollen-producing plants, Texas is experiencing some of its highest yearly pollen-counts.
The culprit behind all this misery is mountain cedar (Juniperus ashei), a short, twisted evergreen that blankets most of central Texas. Also known as Post Cedar, Rock Cedar, Blueberry Juniper and Ashe Juniper, the plant isn’t actually a cedar; it’s a species of juniper that was mistaken for cedar by early settlers. It’s an important facet of the central Texas ecosystem, providing food and shelter for many native species, but its reproductive habits are a source of increasing concern for humans.
Mountain cedars are dioecious, meaning individual plants are either male or female. Most other plants are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female parts. During winter, while most of their kind are either asleep or dead, male mountain cedars take advantage of cold fronts blowing through the territory to disperse their pollen across a wide area. Clouds of pollen rise from the trees’ gnarly branches. Some of it makes its way to female mountain cedars, but most of it seems to end up inside noses a hundred miles away. The resulting allergies have come to be called “cedar fever.”
Interestingly, cedar fever is a prime example of humanities’ devastation of the environment coming back to bite us in the rear. Mountain cedars have existed in Texas since at least the Pleistocene era, but they weren’t always as numerous as they are today. Their range was limited to riverbanks and canyon walls for most of the species’ existence.
Until the 19th century, the central Texas landscape was dominated by grasslands with a light sprinkling of trees resembling the African savannah, only with bison and wolves instead of lions and elephants. Then came waves of European settlers whose poor land management caused erosion and a general reduction in soil quality. The grass died off, and in its place grew hardy mountain cedar, which could better survive in the depleted soil. Modern measures to control wildfires, which previously were the only real threat to the plant’s survival, also contributed to the growth of mountain cedar populations. In the next century, the trees gradually expanded their range, and with more mountain cedars came more allergies.
Symptoms of cedar fever include itchy, watery eyes, congestion, sneezing, fullness sensation of the ear, fatigue, and even loss of smell. Despite the condition’s popular moniker, having a fever is not a symptom. If you’re experiencing these symptoms while also running a temperature, then you’re most likely suffering from an infection such as the common cold or flu.
Initial treatment for mountain cedar allergies is the same as any other seasonal pollen allergy: over-the-counter antihistamines, saltwater nasal irrigations, corticosteroid sprays, and possibly decongestants. Try to stay inside as much as possible (which is easy during winter) to avoid exposure to pollen. Reduce the presence of pollen indoors by changing your air conditioner filters regularly, or, better yet, upgrading to HEPA filters. Be sure to keep furniture and floors clear of dust and debris. Giving your pets regular baths can also reduce the presence of allergens, including cedar pollen, in your house.
The best option for more long-standing relief is immunotherapy. The process involves exposing an individual to tiny amounts of allergen extract. Over time the amount is gradually increased, allowing your immune system to become desensitized slowly.
It’s kind of like exposure therapy for your immune system. People who suffer severe phobias and anxiety are often treated by exposing them to the thing or situation they fear in a controlled, safe environment, usually in gradual steps of increased exposure. Allergies are your immune system overreacting to harmless substances that it perceives as a threat. It’s essentially a panic response. Just like people are capable of becoming desensitized to the triggers of their phobias, their immune systems are capable of becoming desensitized to biological false alarms.
The Pasha Snoring and Sinus Center has been administering immunotherapy as well as a wide variety of surgical and non-surgical solutions to sinus and allergy problems since 2001. We’ve experienced a lot of success relieving allergy sufferers of their chronic symptoms. If you’re tired of suffering severe allergic symptoms year-round, consider paying us a visit!
And if your allergies bloom in the winter months, you may have a mountain cedar allergy. Just try following the steps discussed earlier, and your Christmas will be much merrier this year.
For information on other common wintertime allergies, you can read our blog on the subject by clicking here.