I love winter weather. The crisp, cold temperatures; the early nightfall that makes evenings at Liberty Bar or Bar Loretta feel wintry and cozy.
But I hate mountain cedar.
I know I’m not alone. It seems like two-thirds of the people I know have some kind of problem with mountain cedar.
Mine is probably worse than most. I’ve had asthma since I was a kid. Most of the year, it’s mild and doesn’t really get in the way. The exception is mountain cedar season. Those months are so miserable for me that an allergist once suggested I just leave Texas for three months every winter, and I’ve seriously considered it.
On top of that, like a lot of people, I often end up with some kind of respiratory infection in the winter. But for me, thanks to my asthma, I guess, once I catch it, the effects last for weeks and weeks and weeks.
Except for last winter. No asthma. No respiratory infection.
The reason, it seemed to me, was pretty straightforward: Pandemic precautions. I wore a mask, and I gave up handshakes.
There are so many options for masks — cloth masks, medical masks, N95 masks, KN95 masks — it's hard to know which is the right one. So here’s a quick survey.
I was wearing a simple cloth mask when I stumbled upon its effectiveness against pollen.
Cloth masks are inexpensive and, based on my experience, pretty effective against mountain cedar. I’ve got multiple masks, and I switch them out weekly (more frequently during mountain cedar season), tossing the used mask into the laundry. With washing, the effectiveness of cloth masks will gradually decline, but I expect that takes quite a while with a schedule like mine.
The masks I’ve been using are from early days in the pandemic and came from Etsy. There are now some good commercial options. The New York Times product review website, The Wirecutter, has an extraordinarily detailed and useful review of commercially available cloth masks.
I suggest reading the whole article, but let me also skip to the bottom line. Wirecutter recommends eight different masks, ranging in price from $15 to $32. Each mask has its own advantages and disadvantages. The top pick — for the “best balance of fit, comfort, filtration, and breathability” — is the Enro face mask at $17 from the Enro website.
N95 and KN95 masks
Another option — for both pollen and virus protection — is the high-grade N95 (US standards) and KN95 (Chinese standards) mask. Masks that meet those standards offer good virus protection, assuming they are properly fitted and worn, so they certainly ought to do the job for pollen protection, too.
The primary problem with these masks is expense. They aren’t washable, and they typically cost a dollar or more per mask. However, while they’re not washable, most sources suggest that they’ll give you multiple days of usage (outside of medical settings).
A secondary problem with these masks is counterfeiting. Many masks sold as N95 or KN95 don’t really meet the standard. I personally wouldn’t buy one from Amazon, which is awash in fake merchandise. Some time ago, the New York Times did an in-depth article on N95 and KN95 masks. That article included research on how to avoid fakes, and it recommended this as a source for ordering assured-quality masks: Project 95.
Wirecutter has some picks for KN95 and N95 masks.
Their top pick is the Kimberly-Clark N95 Pouch Respirator. Kimberly-Clark’s webpage for that product provides links to multiple retailers, including Amazon, where you can buy a bag of fifty for $42. (I’d trust an Amazon link provided by the manufacturer.)
Our beautiful blue winter skies have a dark side: the mountain cedar pollen payload they deliver for three months each year.
When the pandemic first hit hard in Texas, I went overboard on the safety precautions because my asthma put me at increased risk. I wore a mask everywhere, even outdoors. At the time, we didn’t know whether the virus was a risk outdoors, and I wasn’t taking any chances.
It was months later — toward the end of the summer, I think — that I noticed something. My usual, year-round asthma and allergies were pretty much absent. I’ve got an inhaler for asthma that I use ‘as needed’. Outside of mountain cedar season, that has always meant a couple of times a day. And suddenly, around August or September, I realized that I hadn’t used that inhaler — at all — for several months.
The reason seemed pretty clear to me: I wasn’t inhaling all the various pollens, molds, and other things that had previously kept my base-level asthma going year-round. Of course, I had known I was allergic to all those things, but I’d lived with that base-level of asthma most of my life, and I never considered it something that was fixable.
The advice I always got from doctors (aside from leaving Texas) was that I not have furry pets and that I use HEPA filters in my HVAC and vacuum cleaner.
No one suggested that I simply wear a cloth mask.
Now that I’m doing it, my doctor says yes, that’s a good idea.
Last winter, I got through mountain cedar season without using my inhaler, and, thanks to other precautions (like no handshakes), I skipped the usual respiratory infection.
So, even though we now know that outdoor masking isn’t really necessary for COVID protection, I’m continuing to wear a mask full-time when I’m outside of my HEPA-filtered home. And during cedar season, I may wear it indoors, too.
I’m hoping my diagnosis is correct and that I’ll have another cedar-free winter.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
The answer is NOT to just leave Texas for three months every winter