Allergy sufferers beware: Mountain cedar will make you miserable

For some, the arrival of the holiday season may cause their noses to twitch and their eyes to water -- but it won't be from one of grandma's savory dishes.

Instead, North Texas allergy sufferers will be dreading the return of the so-called Christmas allergy, mountain cedar.

Like Texas weather, it can be somewhat unpredictable.

Last year, allergy sufferers got a reprieve when the drought limited how much pollen the Juniper trees in the Texas Hill Country will release this year.

The really bad mountain cedar days come in advance of cold fronts, when warm temperatures fuel strong southerly winds that blow the pollen northward into the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"Last season came late, and it was very short, only about two weeks," said Fort Worth allergist James Haden. "Usually, we're looking for it around Christmas and it lasts 6-8 weeks into February."

Haden said he is expecting mountain cedar to return simply because it's been such an unusual season.

"It has been the weirdest year because we have seen spring, fall and winter allergies all at once," Haden said. "We had ragweed, grass and mountain cedar simultaneously in early December."

Estelle Levetin, chairwoman of the biological science department at the University of Tulsa, has studied mountain cedar pollen for years. A mid-December survey of Juniper trees in the Texas Hill Country found only about 5 percent of the trees producing pollen.

But Levetin said the long-range forecasts calling for warm, dry weather this winter indicate the right conditions for mountain cedar pollen to flourish.

"I still think it is going to be a strong season, and the weather is perfect for pollen release," Levetin said in an email. "That said, the weather can still wreak havoc with any prediction we make. The long-range forecasts are not always accurate."

During Levetin's research, mountain cedar has proved to be one of the most robust types of pollen.

Pulled north by strong southerly winds, mountain cedar has been blown all the way from Texas and southern Oklahoma northward to London, Ontario, between Detroit and Toronto, Levetin said.

While the DFW area often sees high mountain cedar pollen counts, they are far less than the massive levels the Austin-San Antonio area sees because of the proximity to the Hill Country where the Juniper trees proliferate.

Even Gov. Rick Perry once commented to the Star-Telegram about the nastiness of the allergen.

"Cedar is a brutal thing," Perry said in 2002. "And I'm just kind of allergic to it. The molds actually hammer me worse than cedar. But these poor people who really are allergic to cedar, I mean, it debilitates them. It's horrible."

If you are susceptible to mountain cedar, getting on a preventive regimen is a must.

Haden, the Fort Worth allergist, said there are over-the-counter allergy medicines, nasal sprays and eye drops that can help those with mild reactions. Those with a severe reaction will require a prescription medication.

"You usually need to start on the medicines before it really hits," Haden said. "All allergy medicines work best in anticipation rather than waiting for the symptoms to kick in."

Haden even suggests wearing wraparound sunglasses to protect eyes while outdoors.

"That's one of the hardest things about mountain cedar -- it's really hard to control once it begins irritating the eyes," Haden said. "It usually works best to use drops in concert with nasal sprays and antihistamines."

But Haden said to use eye drops that say "allergy" rather than those simply for red eyes. If symptoms don't improve within a couple of days, contact your physician.

The allergist also recommends staying indoors as much as possible. If you are outside, he advises taking a shower immediately when you get home and placing clothes in the washing machine to prevent pollen from spreading throughout the house.

With the unusual year for allergies, Haden said nothing would surprise him.

"If you go back to March, it's been crazy," Haden said. "I thought it couldn't get much worse until we started seeing pretty much all of the seasonal allergies at once earlier this month. We could see a pretty strong mountain cedar season, but who knows? I'm giving up trying to make predictions after this year."

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram