AUSTIN (KXAN) — Central Texas has been called the “Allergy Capital of the World,” and Austin has ranked as one of the worst cities for allergy sufferers for years. Not all allergies are the same. While you may suffer from a cedar allergy, your neighbor might deal with grass and your dog with ragweed.
Despite so many of us having allergies, there’s a lot we may not understand about this common affliction. Here’s a look at some of the top allergies in Central Texas, how they’re treated and what makes them special.
What are allergies?
Basically, an allergic reaction is what happens when something that shouldn’t affect you, does. When an environmental allergen enters your body, your body freaks out and goes into overdrive. Your immune system, in an effort to protect your body from the invader, actually starts to do you harm and causes symptoms.
There are several types of allergies, but one of the most common are environmental allergies. These are when something like pollen or mold spores are breathed in and cause a reaction.
“When you inhale an allergen, it creates an inflammatory response, so you get different symptoms depending on the person: runny nose, congestion, drainage,” said Dr. Sheila Amar with the Allergy and Asthma Center of Georgetown. “The most significant reaction is when it starts to cause a severe asthma reaction.”
Allergies are no one’s fault. You can’t cure them. They’re genetic, but sometimes a minor allergy can grow worse after repeated exposure. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America report an estimated 50 million Americans have allergies.
The infamous allergy: Cedar
The cedar season is notorious for allergy sufferers in Central Texas.
But there’s one thing you may not know: cedar isn’t the one responsible.
“Basically, they’re junipers is what they are,” says biologist Robert Edmonson with the Texas A&M Forest Service.
“In the central part of the state we deal with Ashe Juniper. That’s what everyone calls cedar.”
According to Edmonson, Ashe Junipers are unusual amongst tree species because individual Ashe Juniper trees have different genders.
“You can tell the male trees because they’re starting to turn an orange color right now. Its all of those little pollen cones on the ends of the branches. The female trees are the ones that produce those blue berries.”
Male trees release the pollen that drives allergies wild.
“What happens is these trees produce copious amounts of pollen. There’s just so much of it in the air that it just overwhelms your immune system.” Edmonson says there are likely more Ashe Junipers in the Hill Country than any other tree species.
“If you go west of Austin, its very rocky and there’s not a lot of soil. Juniper does very well in this soil because they’re very resilient,” says Daphne Richards the county extension agent for Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service.
“Their roots can hang on in very low amounts of soil and grow where you think a tree might not grow.” Richards says this resilience is common among coniferous trees, like the Ashe Juniper, most of which release their pollen in the winter.
Cedar season peaks in January and ends by March.
The year-round allergy: Mold
Mold is one of the few environmental allergens that isn’t dependent on a season. Instead, mold is dependent on wet weather. If it’s sunny out, with low humidity, mold allergens can lessen in the atmosphere.
Like most environmental allergens, humans absorb mold by breathing it in.
Detecting mold and other allergen spores in the air isn’t easy, requiring something called a pollen count.
According to Amar, doctors use a device called a rotarod that spins at a high speed, 24 hours a day. This device has two rods attached to it that are greased in order to collect pollen. Every 10 minutes, these rods open up to make their collection.
Every morning, Amar and other doctors across the country take their rotarods and take one of the rods off of it. They stain the rod and then place it under a microscope.
Amar then uses a counting device to help her keep track as she counts the spores manually. Since some spores look very similar, a computer can’t be used to do the count. Some days, Amar can find herself counting thousands of spores.
“It would be impossible to count all the molds — a long, long time. It’s just not practical, so we tend to clump them together just because of the sheer number of (them).” Amar said.
Mold is one of the least common allergens in Central Texas, but one of the few that can grow inside your home. If you suspect you have mold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using a dehumidifier, fixing any leaks and removing rugs and carpets from kitchens and bathrooms.
The allergen legion: Grass
One thing that separates grass allergens from other plant-based allergens is variety.
“Bermuda grass is probably one of the biggest ones, Johnson grass, annual rye — which is a little wheat-y grass that pops up in the fall,” says Richards. “We have a lot of native grasses that people can be allergic to.”
Because of their variety, it’s hard to say you have a grass allergy. Instead, you could have a Bermuda allergy or rye allergy. Knowing what type of grass you’re allergic to is important.
While most grasses release pollen in early summer, Richards says something like Bermuda may release pollen later in the season if people are watering their lawns.
“Typically, when someone is allergic to grass, we do testing for grass, and we test for different species,” Amar said. “So then we can tell which specific grass they’re allergic to. They could be allergic to all of them or they could be allergic to just Bermuda and nothing else.”
So how do allergy tests work? Amar performs a skin test, similar to a scratch test, where a person’s arm or back is exposed to every allergen common to Central Texas through a tiny scratch. Amar then looks for a reaction, a bit of swelling or redness.
Before the patient leaves the office, they’ll know every common environmental allergen they are allergic to.
This is the most accurate tool for discovering if someone will have an allergic reaction that’s used today. Kids undergo a scaled back version of this test.
The major advantage to having a allergy test is it will make allergies easier to treat. You may not need to worry about a high grass pollen count in the fall if you’re not allergic to annual rye grass.
The sleeping allergen: Ragweed
Plucked and pruned with abandon, few things receive such disdain from landscape lovers than weeds. In Central Texas, ragweed is notorious for punishing allergy sufferers in the fall.
“As with anything that’s weedy, it has a strong sense of self preservation and making a ton of seeds,” Richards said.
Ragweed, and many other weeds, are capable of producing seeds really early in their life cycles.
“Start to look at really small things close to the ground and see they’re already flowering and producing the next generation, even though they’re super tiny,” Richards said.
Ragweed is also capable of producing seed banks. According to Richards, seed banks are seeds that can release one season and then lay dormant, sometimes for years, until a season comes around that’s more conductive for growing.
This evolutionary tactic makes ragweed exceptionally challenging to avoid for those who are allergic to it.
Thankfully, it is treated like most other allergies.
“There’s a variety of medications people can use. There’s nasal sprays. There’s oral antihistamines.” Dr. Amar said. “We always encourage preventative measures in terms of some things people can do around their home.”
Measures like washing clothes and pets, changing air filters and even wearing a mask. While these steps can help mitigate symptoms, extreme allergy sufferers may have to turn to the allergy shot.
According to Dr. Amar, an allergy shot works by introducing tiny amounts of an allergen, via a shot, into a person’s body in order to build tolerance. The hope is that the following year, the allergen won’t have an effect.
Allergy shots are a long term commitment, according to Dr. Amar. At the start, shots happen once a week, but then move to once a month. Treatment can last three to five years, at which point the treating doctor will reassess a patient’s need for them.
Pet allergies vs. human allergies
While you may suffer loudly with your allergies, some of Central Texas’ favorite residents are suffering in silence — our pets.
Pet allergies are very different than human allergies.
“We as humans inhale allergens through our respirator system. Where as animals absorb allergens (through) their skin,” said Jennifer Nichols, Co-owner of the Animal Allergy and Dermatology Center of Central Texas.
“We may sneeze. We may have a stuffy nose. We may have watery eyes. Animals are different. They exhibit their symptoms through their skin and ears.”
Nichols says those symptoms include itchiness, inflammation, red scaly skin, ear infections and even a foul odor.
If these symptoms persist, they can have dire consequences. Nichols says they’ve seen everything from pets losing all of their hair, to dogs who have lost their hearing because ear infections have gone too long.
Luckily, just like humans, pet allergies are treatable. A similar test to the skin test can be used on pets. Veterinary dermatologists can then use the results from this test to determine a treatment.
“We then can make a custom immunotherapy for your dog or cat … so that the immune system retrains to not overreact to its allergen triggers, ” Nichols said.
Pet allergies are just like human ones in that they can’t be cured, just treated.