Surviving the Scourge of Mountain Cedar

It’s the airborne Ebenezer Scrooge that arrives in time for Christmas each year, making noses run, eyes itch and tempers flare.

You might know it by its common name, mountain cedar pollen— although the trees that cast it off in ridiculously large amounts are actually Ashe junipers.

“People who aren’t from here, when they see this stuff layered on cars they’re concerned it’s smog or pollution,” said Dr. Jesus R. Guajardo, associate professor of pediatrics at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio, who is board certified in both allergy/immunology and pediatric pulmonology, and who practices at University Health. “They don’t realize that yellow coating everywhere is actually the cedar. It’s what you’re breathing every day.”

Thick forests of mountain cedar trees blanket the Texas Hill Country, extending into northern Bexar County. The pollen arrives on chilly north winds, often after the first frost. Mountain cedar season typically begins in mid-December and lasts well into February, although the timing and severity can vary depending on rainfall and other conditions.

Sufferers — and there are plenty of them — have a lot more choices for relief than in past years, Dr. Guajardo said. But the first and best advice he gives is avoidance.

“For someone who already knows they are allergic to cedar, they should prepare their homes for the season to avoid things that will bring pollen indoors,” Dr. Guajardo said. “Keep the windows closed. Change the (air conditioning) filters. When you go to work, try to go from the house to the garage without going outdoors. Keep the windows closed in your car. All this will decrease the exposure to pollen.

Still, there’s a good chance your hair and clothes will be coated with pollen by the time you get home. Dr. Guajardo recommends a quick shower and tossing your clothes in the washer, to minimize the risk of shedding pollen throughout the house.

Then there’s the dog and cat to consider. If they go outdoors, they’re going to be covered with pollen too. Washing them off each time might be a challenge, but at least keep them out of the bedroom and off the bed, he recommends. Otherwise, “you can wear a space suit outside, but as soon as you come home and go to sleep, you’re going to be breathing it in.”

As for treatments, nasal washes can be safe and effective for milder symptoms, although the CDC recommends you not use tap water unless boiled or filtered first. Some people find relief by using little filters inserted into the nostrils. Several brands of these nasal filters are on the market.

From there, a host of medication options are available, depending on symptoms and what the patient can afford. These include antihistamines, decongestants and nasal steroids. It’s best to have a conversation with your doctor about the right choice for you. Perhaps the most effective of these, Dr. Guajardo said, is a combination nasal steroid and topical antihistamine available by prescription and sprayed into the nose twice a day.

In the future, patients could see a personalized approach to treating their allergies, Dr. Guajardo said. Researchers are working on medications that could target and kill the specific immune cells that cause the allergic reaction to mountain cedar pollen.

But until then, Dr. Guajardo suggests you practice avoidance, use a rinse or medications if needed to control your symptoms — and be patient. Mountain cedar pollen — like the holidays — doesn’t last forever.

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