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Cedar fever, Central Texas' pollen plague

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Spending a lot of time lately saying, "Bless you!" and "Gesundheit?" Using up boxes of tissues? Sniffling? Sneezing? Itchy eyes? Blocked sinuses? Headache? Just want to go to bed and sleep forever?
If you're a Hill Country veteran, you have probably taken some precautions, but if you're a newcomer, welcome to this area's fifth season - Cedar Fever Season!
The season runs from December through February when the male mountain cedar trees (Juniperus ashei) explode, sending out smoky orange clouds of pollen in search of female trees with their blue-green berries to pollinate. National Allergy Bureau (NAB) data shows that the pollen may appear as early as October, and are occasionally seen as late as May.
The buoyant pollen can be carried for miles. The chemical makeup of cedar pollen may account for the severity of allergic reactions to it. The pollen seems to contain a higher carbohydrate content than other pollens.
Not everyone is sensitive to the pollen, but for many, a record setting cedar pollen season - which this one seems to be - can create a great deal of misery. People who already suffer from asthma or bronchitis are especially susceptible to its worst effects.
Those who have a heavy sensitivity may find that cedar fever is an all-year-long problem, with outbreaks occurring after walking through a cedar brake, cutting cedar, visiting a cedar furniture store or being in contact with people who have the cedar oils on their clothing.
The allergic reaction to cedar pollen seems to be particularly pernicious. Sufferers take Zyrtec, Claritin, OTC allergy medicines and prescriptions. They also try neti pots and acupunture. Those who can afford it just leave the state for Colorado or move to the coast for a couple of months. calls cedar a plague, noting, "The juniper really has no redeeming value: it is poor firewood, it is a poor landscape plant, it is a poor source of food for native animals and it is poor wood for construction." These folks also blast the plant for sucking up tremendous amounts of groundwater. Studies have shown that, because of its thick pattern of growth, mountain cedar actually keeps rainwater from ever touching the ground.
Cedar fever can interfere with the quality of life in a variety of ways that include loss of sleep, limitation of activities, diminished productivity, poor concentration, emotional distress, irritability and fatigue.
Allergists say the best defense against pollen is to stay indoors as much as possible - and to take the following steps, even when indoors:
• Keep your doors and windows closed. Run the air conditioner when the pollen is extremely high.
• Cover your air conditioning vents with cheesecloth to help filtrate the pollen, and change the air conditioning filter often. You may want to use a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter to help filtrate the pollen even more.
• Dust your home with a damp cloth, and vacuum carpets with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter each week.
• Take a shower and change your clothes after being outdoors for a long period of time. This will protect you from pollen that lands on your clothes and in your hair.
• Bathe pets often, even if they live indoors.
• Take allergy medicines exactly as prescribed. If you know cedar will be a problem for you each winter, see your doctor in early fall to update your treatment plan and stock up on prescription allergy medications.
• Eliminate male cedar trees in your yard by replacing them with good hardwoods like elm, ash, or oak.
Those who must go outdoors should pay attention to pollen counts. Peak pollen production is between 5 am and 10 am, and pollen counts are highest on warm, sunny days. If you do go outside, cover your nose and mouth. When driving, keep your car windows up, and set your air conditioner on recirculate. The best times to venture out are on cool, cloudy days or during and right after a rainfall when pollen counts are typically lowest.

Pictured: Courtesy photo
It's not the female mountain cedar, above, with its purple berries, that causes the severe allergic reaction known as cedar fever - it's the male.