In addition to blogging and writing books, I’m a freelance writer. (Actually, I used to be a managing editor for an awesome regional magazine, but that’s a whole other story.) The following article originally appeared in a neighborhood publication owned by The Boerne Star in November 2013.
For this article, I tapped the San Antonio blogger community for stories about “cedar fever,” a phenomenon that non-Texans may find curious. It has some great advice for warding off seasonal allergies in general which can be summed up in four words: keep your nose clean.
If you’re new to the northwest side of San Antonio, consider asking your friends and neighbors to tell you their “cedar fever” survival stories. Late autumn and early winter—and sometimes as late as April, the pollen from a common evergreen tree, Juniperus ashei or Ashe juniper (commonly called “mountain cedar”), creates all kinds of chaos ranging from the comic to the serious.
“I had a friend who backed her car into a cedar tree in high school. So much pollen came off the tree and got sucked into her car that even after getting detailed several times and changing the air filter, we all still sneezed when she turned on the air-conditioner or when we sat down too hard in the seat,” said photographer Amanda Raba-Gentis.
“My husband is not from San Antonio, and it took him about two years to see symptoms when he moved here,” said Pence. “But now he suffers every year, too. I was so sick one year and had so many sinus infections due to cedar that my doctor considered sinus surgery.”
The Science Behind the “Fever”
Dr. Dalys Gomez explains that cedar pollen is especially problematic because it doesn’t just impact people who are allergic to it.
“The pollen is so thick out here some days that it’s not unusual for the fire department to be called about the ‘smoke’ hanging in the air. Because it’s so dense and it’s everywhere around us, you don’t have to be truly allergic to get sick. You can simply be overwhelmed by it. That’s not well understood by the public, but it’s true. For many people the pollen has an irritant effect, which is actually can be harder to treat because there’s no underlying immune reaction to address.”
Although the phrase “cedar fever” is commonplace in Texas, that isn’t a medical term. Nor does one typically experience a fever, except in instances in which too much congestion sparks a sinus infection.
Cedar fever is, according to Dr. Gomez, “a response to the cedar pollen which can mimic viral illness. There’s a feeling of general malaise. People will complain ‘I’m sick, I’m sick, I’m sick’ and then try to load up on antibiotics, which doesn’t help.”
Ashe juniper pollen is worse in the mornings and when the North wind blows.
“The wind makes the berries on the tree pop, releasing the pollen in a puff of smoke. That puts a lot of particulate matter in the air that can impact allergic and non-allergic residents. Our phone calls here in the office go in waves, tracking with the pollen.”
As with the case of the Colleen Pence’s husband, Dr. Gomez said that it’s not unusual for newcomers to get a pass on the cedar problem for a few years.
“New residents get a 3- to 5-year honeymoon period, and then they become sensitive, either because they are allergic or, again, because of the irritant effect.”
How to Get Relief
To combat the scourge, Dr. Gomez recommended first, second, and third line defenses.
“First, I encourage avoidance of the pollen as much as possible. This is nearly impossible, but there are prevention strategies that work. Take a shower every night and wash your hair, face, and eyes. No tears formulated baby shampoo works great. Nasal washes with distilled water work great, as do saline eye drops. You want to remove that pollen as much as possible to cut down on the chances of immune reaction. Washing your hands is critical, too. We touch our faces constantly, and that brings the pollen to your face, creating problems. ”
For second line approaches, Dr. Gomez recommended over-the-counter antihistamines in combination with the careful washing of body and bedding can help most sufferers.
“The bedroom is one place where you want to be extra vigilant about keeping the pollen out,” she said. Vacuuming regularly and washing sheets and blankets are critical, too.
“If one still has problems, it’s time to go to an allergist,” said Dr. Gomez. “You want to look for someone who is board-certified or board-eligible to ensure you’re getting optimal assistance and have the best chance at getting real relief.”
As for what to do in the unfortunate event that your teenager hits a cedar tree with her car, there’s no standard way to address the problem. You might find yourself considering a radical solution. “It was terrible,” said Raba-Gentis, recalling her school friend’s accident years ago. “I think her Dad finally just sold the car for scrap and bought her a new one. I mean, it was covered, and she hit it hard.”
At least with hindsight it makes for a good story.
If you’re looking to hire a freelance writer (for print or online media, in Central Texas or beyond), please feel free to contact me.