It’s not the most wonderful time of year for those who suffer from allergies.
Mountain Cedar season is here, and with it, many people’s allergies will be triggered.
Cedar allergies have a unique pattern in Texas that reoccur like clockwork in December, January and early February when mountain cedar trees release their pollen.
And then gusting winter winds carry the allergen all over the state and even beyond its borders.
Dr. Kirk Waibel, an allergist at Aspire Allergy & Sinus in New Braunfels, said mountain cedar is the “scourge and plague” to allergy sufferers in South Central Texas.
“It is such a bad allergen, mainly because the counts get up to ridiculous numbers, and we’re seeing that play out this week,” Waibel said. “The cedar tree is prevalent throughout Central South Texas because it’s very drought-resistant, but it’s great for wildlife.”
The tree produces berries as a food source for wildlife, he said. Cedar trees also thrive in this climate, and the male tree releases its pollen during cold temperatures.
When the tree releases its pollen, it “looks like a fire,” he said.
“It looks like smoke in the air, but the smoke is not from a fire,” he said. “It’s from the density of the pollen grains being released by these trees. If you get the right climate, which is wind, dryness and cold, those are the key factors for these cedar trees. Millions and millions of grains of pollen go into the air.”
Allergy symptoms from this airborne pollen include watery and itchy eyes, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, congestion, and, of course, constant sneezing. Symptoms can be so severe that this ailment is called Cedar Fever. However, an actual fever is not an allergy symptom.
The first thing people can do for allergy protection, he said, is minimizing their exposure.
“We’re not sure how well masks can help — that can filter some things,” he said. “But masks don’t cover your eyes … Indoors, air conditioning and filtered air is your friend, but we have these nice cool days, and it’s nice to let the air go through the home, but it also brings in all the pollen.”
Medicines can also help. Some basic over-the-counter allergy medicines that patients do well on include oral antihistamines and nasal sprays, he said.
Waibel added that a primary care physician or pharmacist could help determine what the best over-the-counter medicines or prescription medicines can help.
More tips for managing allergies include wash bedding in hot water weekly, investing in a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter for the home, changing clothes and shoes when coming in from the outdoors, reducing clutter that may be collecting dust, downloading a pollen app and checking on it regularly.
Those with allergies can also shower at night to rinse off allergens, use zipped pillow and mattress covers, keep windows closed during peak allergy seasons, wipe pets down when coming in from outside or replace carpet with tile, wood or laminate flooring.
Allergies or COVID?
A question people ask Waibel these days is whether their symptoms are caused by allergies or COVID-19.
COVID-19 and seasonal allergies share many symptoms, but there are some key differences between the two, he said.
“The key discriminator is going to be fever,” he said. “It’s extremely rare to have a fever with just allergies. If you’re running a fever of 100.4 degrees or more, that’s not really allergies. It could be a sinus infection, the flu, it could be the common cold that kids get this time of year and sometimes goes through families, but that would be more concerning in the COVID lane than the allergy lane.”
Allergies also won’t cause aches and pains but can cause cough and runny nose as well as itchy, watery eyes, dark circles under eyes and symptoms that last more than 10 days.
The sudden loss of smell is also a concern, he said.
“With allergies, you can get a runny, snotty, drainage nasal symptoms, but with COVID, if you lose your sense of smell, that’s not allergies, however evil they may be.”
COVID-19 symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea.
Waibel said if a patient has doubts, they should get a COVID test. But patients can also see a primary physician or allergist for testing and evaluation of their allergy symptoms.
“A lot of times when the allergies get more severe…or affecting the patient’s quality of life or the patient feels like they are taken so many medications, that’s when the allergist can play a unique and helpful role in seeing those patients. We have skin testing that is sensitive in picking up the allergies as well as some other therapies beyond just medicine, such as allergy shots or drops.”
Another option for long-term allergy sufferers, Waibel said, is a new procedure called ExACT Immunoplasty, which involves undergoing three injection procedures over the course of eight weeks. The injection itself is administered into the inguinal lymph node.
“It’s a much faster way to address a person’s allergies,” he said. “There are primary care and specialists out there that can help.”
According to Pollen.com, pollen levels in New Braunfels are expected to remain in the high range for the next several days.