Step aside, cedar fever… Here comes the pollen plague

ADC’s allergists offer tips on how to survive this spring.

oak tree branches against sunny skyEvery year in Central Texas, the “cedar fever” winter allergy threat from Mountain Cedar gives way to springtime breezes swirling with pollen from numerous types of trees, including oak, elm, ash, and sycamore. The result? More watery eyes and runny noses for those with seasonal allergies.

Winter rainfall has likely set the stage for a miserable spring allergy season in Central Texas.  In other words, goodbye cedar fever, hello tree pollen plague.  There is hope, however, for people living with allergies, says Dr. John Villacis, an allergist/immunologist with The Austin Diagnostic Clinic.

“The combination of mild climate and allergen-producing plants that grow in Central Texas means we live in one of the most challenging places in the world for people with allergies,” says Dr. Villacis. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend the next three months coughing, sneezing, and wheezing.”

What causes allergies? Why me?

Most people have no reaction when exposed to tree pollen or mold spores. But for an estimated 40 million people in the United States, the body’s natural defense mechanisms overreact when exposed to these seemingly benign plant byproducts.

It’s not clear exactly why it happens, but in essence, some people treat pollens as if they are something more malicious, such as a germ, instead of an unassuming speck, Dr. Villacis explains. This causes the body to release immunologic antibodies and chemicals such as histamine, resulting in localized inflammation, irritation, and discomfort of the mucous membranes that line the nasal passages.

“If you have allergies, you already know what this means: constant sneezing, itchy throat, swollen sinuses, runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes,” Dr. Villacis says.

These same particles can sometimes inflame your airways, too, resulting in allergy-induced asthma, which is a common type of asthma in the United States, Dr. Villacis adds.

Locally-grown allergens

Most people with seasonal allergies have adverse reactions to pollen from a very select number of plants. In Central Texas, there are at least three distinct pollen seasons: ragweed in the fall, mountain cedar in the winter, and tree pollen in the spring. Most trees in the region start to pollinate in March and produce peak amounts of pollen in April, before slowing down again in May. Central Texas is home to several species known to be especially problematic for those with allergies, most notably ash, sycamore, mulberry, willow, oak, fall elm, American elm, pecan, and mesquite.

Treatment options abound

The best advice for anyone who thinks they are having allergies is to talk to a board certified allergist to help determine exactly which plants are causing an allergic reaction, Dr. Villacis explains. If a person is found to have specific allergic reactions, there are a variety of potential treatments to alleviate the symptoms, ranging from avoidance measures like staying inside with the doors and windows closed, to taking over-the-counter or prescription medications. Allergy shots can also be used, resulting in significant improvement and sometimes complete resolution of your allergy symptoms.

Over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants, and other medications may be sufficient in many cases to relieve symptoms. For more severe cases, prescription medications such as corticosteroid nasal sprays may be used. These drugs sometimes take a week or so before they start to bring relief, however.

Nothing can completely rid a home of allergens. Some simple ways to curb seasonal allergies involve minimizing your exposure to the pollens causing the problem in the first place, Dr. Villacis says. Tips include using an allergy-proof mattress and pillow covers, regularly washing sheets and blankets in hot water, and frequently cleaning floors and furniture. Beyond preventative cleaning, keeping the doors and windows sealed and running the air conditioner with a filtration system can go a long way toward minimizing your pollen exposure. Finally, before you spend time outdoors, check the weather. Pollen tends to be at its highest levels in the morning and on dry, windy days. Many local media now issue daily pollen forecasts, so you can know in advance whether or not it might be a bad idea to be outside.

“Seasonal allergies are something millions of us have to live with,” says Dr. Villacis. “But there’s no reason you can’t enjoy life by receiving the proper medical treatment, and simply avoiding the source of your allergies.