Friday, October 18, 2019

Allergies: The View from Here

I've been wanting to write about my experiences with allergies for a while now. I expect I have a level of insight that could be useful to others after 60-plus years of a life lived allergically. Permit me to share my thoughts here, with the qualifier that I am in no way an expert on allergies except as a person who has always had a bunch of them.

My late mother used to tell of an angora hat she put on me when I was a baby that was apparently the first indicator that I was going to be allergic. I get itchy just thinking about it. The list grew rapidly to include eggs, animals, pollens, molds, grass, chocolate, dust mites and many other things that are impossible to avoid completely. (I sometimes wonder if the mass giving away of my beloved stuffed animals in the name of a dust-free bedroom was an early childhood trauma.)

Eventually I got old enough - 11, maybe? - to have one of those scratch tests on my back, which made for a horrible hour of being forced to lie still on my stomach while my back raged with itching. The test confirmed that I was allergic to pretty much everything they tried. I've since had a lifetime of unexplained periods of fluctuating duration in which I might have hives, itchy eyes, wheezing, a kind of weird mouth thing that I know as "tingle-lips," and various bumps, welts and scratchy bits that emerge and subside unpredictably.

One time, I ate cheezies while riding a horse in the rain, and some strange combination of that left me looking like a child version of The Hulk for several hours as every part of my face swelled up with itchy bumps and my ears turned into thick, twisted lumps. Another time, I got giant, water-filled hives on my torso from some drug they'd given me for my asthma, and it left scars that lingered for more than a year.

So yes, I know a thing or two about allergies. I'm nothing like how I was when I was kid, but I still get rashes for no discernable reason, and tingle-lips at parties if anybody has put blue cheese too close to the other cheeses on the charcuterie plate. (Oddly enough, a friend cooked blue cheese in a macaroni casserole recently and I ate it without knowing, and nothing happened. Does that mean cooking the blue cheese changed something, or that it's all in my head?)

One of the top learnings from a lifetime of allergies is that controlled and gradual exposure to many of the things I'm allergic to has been a huge help in getting over them. That said, the strategy doesn't work for everything. The tricky thing is in figuring out which of your allergies might improve from gradual exposure and which ones never will.

Cats, for instance. As a kid, I couldn't even walk into someone's house who had a cat without starting to wheeze. But then I grew up and went through many years of owning cats because I loved them anyway, and realized that I quickly got used to whatever cats we had in the house at the time. For a few years, we had a cat that had a lot of litters (I know, irresponsible, but we always found them good homes and loved them madly for those months before giveaway). I'd be allergic to each new litter for about 3 weeks and then would adapt.

Now, I barely think about being allergic to cats. I still can't pick one up and rub my face in its fur, and I wash my hands after petting so I don't accidentally touch my eyes with cat hands (the weak link). But other than that, I'm fine to hang with cats. I'm fine with rabbits, too, having bought a house rabbit for my youngest daughter once upon a time and endured six intense weeks of wheezing, nose-blowing and scratching while getting used to dear Nutmeg.

But then there's mold.

In the 1960s-70s when I was growing up, it was common to give kids injections for their allergies, the theory being that if you were exposed gradually to increasing doses of an allergen, you would develop a tolerance. I'd go in every week or so and get a pollen mix injected in one arm and mold in the other.

The pollen series worked well, and I give those shots credit every spring, when so many others are suffering with their allergies and I'm not. But my mold injections had to be stopped early, because my arm was swelling more and I was getting sicker with each injection.

Just a couple of months ago, I stumbled upon the surprising information that one of the world's most common food additives is produced from a mutant strain of the fungus Aspergillus niger, which is responsible for black moldWhen cultured in a sugary substance, the fungus - a known allergen - creates citric acid as a byproduct.
Photo credit:

That byproduct is everywhere, in a vast array of juices, pops, coolers, cosmetics, "fruit-flavoured" bars, jams and more, even though no research has ever been done on its safety or the impact of increased exposure. More than two million tonnes are produced annually, most of it in China.

Fed up with more than a year of a persistent, itchy rash under my arms and some seriously uncomfortable bouts of heartburn after drinking lemon-lime diet drinks, I scanned the list of ingredients of some of my favourite beverages a couple of months ago and got to wondering about citric acid. So I looked it up, and was stunned to learn that it came from a mold.

Could that be the source of my irritating rash? Hard to say, but it wasn't too tough to excise citric acid from my diet and test my theory. So I did. The rash is gone. Could be coincidence, could be an ah-hah. Personally, I'm just glad to not be itchy anymore. I can live without citric acid.

If my mother the nurse was still alive, she'd probably pooh-pooh my citric acid theory and note that if that were the case, why would the allergies only be bothering me now? To which I would tell her that people in general are experiencing increasing allergies to food and cosmetic additives, because we are being exposed to greater and greater amounts of them in this unnatural life we lead.

The growing exposure to a grand number of weird little lab-made chemicals is creating sensitivities even in people who have never had allergies. I talked to a University of Victoria researcher a while back who told me of the race in the cosmetics world to find a substitute for preservatives like parabens and methylisothiazolinone. Both are now omnipresent in cosmetics due to a shrinking list of safe preservatives, and are triggering sensitivies because of overexposure.

I've tried many vitamins and herbs over the years to see if they help with my allergies. I've never noticed much impact from any of them. The effective strategies for me have been gradual exposure to the things I'm not too allergic to, avoidance of the things that I can't get a handle on (those scented sticks in oil just kill me - what the heck is in that oil??), and antihistamines for the occasional times when I know I''ll be allergic but want to do whatever the thing is anyway. (Horseback riding!)

Antihistamines are very useful when used well and in moderation, but you need to figure out which ones work for you. The word "antihistamine" covers a number of drugs, all of which work in different ways and react differently from person to person. You'll need to do some experimenting and label-reading to figure out which one brings you relief. (For me, it's loratadine. The brand name is Claritin but it's gotten so expensive lately that I've switched to the generic versions, which seem to work equally well.)

When heading into an allergy-rich situation, I take an antihistamine before I go. You never want to wait until the allergies set in, because the drugs don't work nearly as well once that happens.

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun
So if I'm going to a barn party in a working barn, or spending the day at the Saanich Fair, I take one, because hay and big animals like horses still get to me. If I've got the care of a dog that has allergies itself (hot spots, for instance), I know I'll need antihistamines for the first couple of days while I adjust, because something about an allergic dog really makes me allergic, too.

If you've got allergy stories and solutions of your own, I'd love to hear them. Having allergies is the kind of thing that requires a lot of figuring out so they don't interfere with your life, and they feel to me like they're too variable and individualized for modern medicine to respond to well. I think a lot of it comes down to individual strategies.

One last observation: If you're sensitive to pollens, don't believe the assurances of the clerk in the vitamin store that supplements like bee pollen and royal jelly don't cause allergies in people with pollen allergies. I learned the hard way that's not true. I unknowingly triggered a three-week stretch of terrible, almost-in-the-hospital asthma before it dawned on me that the culprit was the bee pollen I'd been taking daily.