New to Austin? Watch out for winter allergies

Side profile of a man blowing his nose with a napkinIf this is your first winter in Austin, prepare for some great surprises, like
year-round jogging on Town Lake Trail, the Zilker Holiday Tree, and a full calendar of seasonal entertainment. But one Austin winter tradition may come as an unwelcome surprise – the sneezing, wheezing, and itchy eyes caused by “cedar fever.”

“When cedar pollinates, Central Texas sneezes,” says Thomas Smith, M.D. an allergist with The Austin Diagnostic Clinic (ADC). “Many people are sensitive to cedar pollen, so they experience allergy symptoms from the time cedar starts pollinating in December until it finishes in February.”

The trick for newcomers is learning to distinguish between allergy symptoms and symptoms of colds or the flu, because the treatments are different. At first, it can be difficult to tell the difference because all three can cause symptoms such as nasal congestion, coughing and sneezing, muscle aches and fatigue.

“Where you don’t have overlap is that allergies cause more nasal itching and itchy eyes. The key word is ‘itching,’ because that probably indicates an allergy,” Smith says. Allergies also never cause fever.

“Viral respiratory infections like colds and flu sometimes cause fever, but not always. Adults may not have fever at all, or they may run a low-grade fever. They often have more muscle aches than fever with colds and flu.”

Cold and flu symptoms usually last about seven to 10 days and go away by themselves, while allergy symptoms last as long as the allergen is present. However, ongoing symptoms are no guarantee that new Austinites have allergies. Symptoms could be the result of a series of colds caused by unfamiliar viruses, Smith explains.

“When adults move into a new area, they encounter new viruses. What seems like a cold that lasts all winter may actually be a sequence of colds,” he says. “It’s similar to what can happen to children when they enter daycare. Children get an average of six viral illnesses during the winter, but children in daycare can get twice that many. Adults can also find themselves with more viral illnesses than normal when they are in a new environment.”

Sometimes, the only way to tell whether symptoms are caused by a viral infection or allergy is to analyze how they respond to medication. For example, antihistamines and decongestants are more effective for allergy symptoms than for colds. Symptoms that respond well to antihistamines are probably caused by allergy.

If you do use any over-the-counter medication, read labels carefully. “Exercise caution when using any medication,” warns Dr. Smith. “Many over-the-counter medicines may have a sedating effect. Over-the-counter antihistamines all have the potential to cause sedation and also to slow reaction time, which means it may be risky to drive while taking these. They also may affect children’s school performance. It’s always best to discuss medications with your physician before trying to self-medicate.”

Allergy sufferers get the greatest relief by avoiding the allergen – which in the case of cedar fever means staying indoors as much as possible until pollination is completed – and using nasal sprays containing anti-inflammatory agents.

Regardless of whether symptoms are caused by allergy or viral infections, see a doctor if the symptoms shift to the chest.

“Allergy is a common trigger of asthma in adults, even those who don’t think they
have asthma,” Smith says. “Up to 50 percent of allergy patients have some exercise-induced asthma during allergy season, so it’s pretty common.”

Chest symptoms to watch for include chest congestion, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. “All of these are signs of asthma. They shouldn’t be ignored because asthma isn’t a one-time thing; it’s repeated under the same conditions,” advises Dr. Smith.

Whether you’re new to Austin, or a long-time resident, it helps to keep these tips in mind the next time you start to sniffle. It may be something you learn to live with, or an illness that needs your doctor’s attention.