Approaching cedar season could be ‘worst we’ve ever seen’

Cedar pollen blowing off of trees in Jan. 2014 (via KXAN viewer Vic Smith)
Cedar pollen blowing off of trees in Jan. 2014 (via KXAN viewer Vic Smith)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Cedar is notorious for being one of Central Texans’ worst allergens, and the upcoming cedar season could possibly be “the worst we’ve ever seen,” according to a local allergist with more than 30 years of experience in the field.

Dr. Robert Cook with Central Texas Allergy & Asthma says this year’s cedar season has actually been two years in the making. Last year, Central Texas finally emerged from a half-decade drought, but trees were still recovering during the cedar season. Continued, steadier rain through this year had made trees green and encouraged a lot of growth, which is translating to more pollen production this winter.

Cedar season is typically the third week in December through the end of February, but this year, Dr. Cook says the season could be mid-December all the way through the first week of March. Male cedar trees — technically ashe junipers — produce pollen on the ends of their branches that turns brown and cone-like when they’re mature. One good cold snap will open the cones and let the yellow pollen be dispersed by the wind. On windy days, clouds of cedar pollen are a common sight in this area.

During the height of cedar season, it’s normal to see 5,000-10,000 cedar grains per cubic meter of air. Dr. Cook believes numbers this year will be on the high side, possibly in the low 10,000s. It is possible for numbers to go as high as 60,000, but that would be very rare.

This year could be especially bad for newcomers to Central Texas. Often, people who have only been in this area from 1-6 years don’t see cedar effects. But on a bad year like this one, Dr. Cook says it’s possible that more people who would be prone to the allergen could develop full allergies to cedar. About 30 percent of all people suffer from pollen allergies, and of that number, Dr. Cook says a majority are specifically allergic to cedar.

If we get a rainy winter with multiple hard freezes, it could change the current outlook. Unfortunately, the Climate Prediction Center is still predicting a warmer, drier than normal winter this year.

Dr. Cook suggests nasal sprays and over-the-counter antihistamines if you start reacting to cedar for the first time this year. Be wary of eye drops: some “redness relievers” can actually aggravate your allergies. Allergy drops and shots are better options for next year, so that you can build up an immunity to cedar. Dr. Cook says not to look for any allergy tablets that are made just for cedar sufferers, because the allergen is not widespread enough in the U.S. to warrant production.

Cedar season comes right on the heels of red berry juniper, which usually spikes in late November. Southwest winds over the next two weeks could make red berry juniper numbers worse, as the trees that create the pollen are farther south, toward Kerrville. Red berry juniper is technically a cousin of cedar, so some allergy sufferers could already be seeing effects with only a one to two week break before the cedar season begins.

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