What sets Austin apart from anywhere else in the U.S. is our winter cedar pollen season. When most of the country is frozen with no blooming plants, the cedar trees go crazy in Austin. The highest pollen counts ever recorded anywhere in the world occur annually when these trees cut loose. The male cedar trees become covered with small brown cones which burst open on dry, windy days to release pollen. You can tell the season is about to start when the trees turn orange/brown. Newcomers to Austin may think there is a fire in the woods when they see the clouds of pollen blowing.
Cedar trees pollinate between December 10th and March 1st, with the highest levels in the first three weeks of January. Some patients become almost incapacitated on days of high counts. It is best to prepare for cedar season by starting prescription cortisone nasal sprays one to two weeks before trees begin to pollinate. Fortunately, allergy shots can be highly effective in reducing sensitivity to cedar.
Cedar tree pollinating in Dr Howland’s back yard
Common Texas Spring Pollens
The major sources of Spring Allergens are trees and grasses. The heaviest pollinating trees in Austin are Oaks. Ash and Elm trees begin pollinating around mid-February, and oak pollination begins in March, with peak levels usually around April 1st. Pecan and Cottonwood trees are the last pollinators in May.
These oak trees on the University of Texas campus are covered with catkins, which are the green and yellow structures you see hanging from the branches. The catkins break open and release large amounts of allergens, especially on dry, windy days, before falling to the ground. You will see them covering sidewalks, yards and streets in mid-April. Sweeping the dried catkins releases even more pollen.
The most common pollinating grasses in Austin are Bermuda, Johnson and Rye. There are many other grasses, but if you are allergic to Rye, you are allergic to all of them. Grass begins pollinating in March and may continue through October. Usually, the grass count drops to very low, almost undetectable levels in July and August when it gets dry and everything turns brown in Central Texas.
Austin Fall Pollens
Ragweed plants are Austin’s heaviest pollinators in the fall. Giant ragweed plants may grow to 15 or 20 feet tall in one season. Short ragweed plants are only one to two feet tall but may release more pollen than the larger plants. A single ragweed plant may release one billion grains of pollen in one season. There are also 10 other types of weeds and Elm trees that pollinate in the fall.
Dr. Howland’s six-foot-tall son, Billy, stands next to 20-foot tall ragweed plants near Shoal Creek in August 2004.
Giant Ragweed plants can be recognized by their large three-part leaves (seen above) and their thick, brushy stalks. Ragweed plants are covered with florets (which look like groups of tiny, yellow inverted cups) that release pollen on dry windy days.
Giant Ragweed plants can grow more than 20 feet tall (as seen in this picture of Dr. Howland’s son, Billy, standing by ragweed plants near Shoal Creek). At least 10 other kinds of weeds and fall Elm trees pollinate at the same time as Ragweed, which adds to the misery for allergy sufferers. Weed pollen counts generally peak around October 1st and reach very low levels by November 15th.
One strategy for decreasing allergy symptoms is to avoid exposure. For pollens, this means staying indoors with windows closed and trying to avoid outdoor activities like sports, camping and cookouts when counts are high. However, cool days in the fall are some of the nicest times to be outdoors in Austin. Because effective treatments are available, we feel people should not be held captive indoors by allergies but should be able to enjoy all the wonderful outdoor activities available in Austin. If you aren’t able to control your symptoms, please contact us at 512-345-7635.
Yard work, especially mowing and leaf blowing, can stir lots of pollen and mold spores into the air. Mold grows on any organic matter (like leaves and grass) and in soil. Tremendous levels of mold spores can be found in compost piles or in any decaying materials. Unfortunately, mold can grow almost anywhere indoors and outdoors – there is some presently growing on the paint on the back of my house. Allergic reactions to mold are similar to reactions to other allergens such as pollens, dust and pet dander.
If you are working outdoors, wear a dust mask and gloves, and try not to touch your face or eyes while working. Wash your face and rinse out your eyes and nose (you can use over the counter tears and saline nose sprays such as Ocean) after you come indoors. Prior to yard work or outdoor activities on days with high mold or pollen counts, use antihistamine eyedrops (like Pazeo, Elestat, Optivar or over-the-counter Alaway or Zaditor ), antihistamine pills (like Clarinex or Xyzal or over-the-counter Allegra/Claritin/Alavert/Loratadine) or cortisone nasal sprays (like Dymista or Qvar or over-the-counter Flonase or Nasacort) to lessen symptoms.