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An allergic Sherlock Holmes

Back in the Dark Ages, allergic people were probably much more likely to fight off intestinal parasites, viral and bacterial infections and even scourges like the Black Death. Up to 100 years ago, in fact, carrying genes that elicited a high IgE (Immunoglobulin E) response, was probably a distinct evolutionary advantage, something that kept the carriers of these genes more apt to survive to reproduce.

In our modern times, though, "atopic" individuals (those prone to allergies)  find themselves fighting their own bodies or other otherwise harmless substances like peanuts, eggs, milk, nuts, fish, animal dander, dust, mould, grasses, pollens. Simple things can sometimes kill an allergic person. Those prone to allergies are often depicted as weak, mouth-breathing, nerdy, canary types whom others delight in kicking sand in their faces.

I come from a long line of allergic types. My grandfather on my father's side died of an asthma attack in 1926. My father is anaphylactic to flat fish. My sister is deathly allergic to scallops. I get asthmatic to cats, hay and dust, and my throat swells upon eating kiwi. All of us in my family have hay fevers to various grasses and pollens. ( One bonus, allergic individuals are much less likely to get cancer.)

I happened to marry an atopic man, who is allergic to walnuts, peaches, cherries and anaphylactic to bees, wasps and hornets. Our kids didn't stand a chance! Kate our oldest soon after birth developed severe allergies to dairy, eggs and peanuts and had to carry an Epipen wherever she went. When I was pregnant with Maddy, I drank goat's milk,  and ate sweet potato, lamb and ancient grains in an attempt to avoid sensitizing her to common allergens. So far, Maddy shows no allergies but I suspect, any day now, she will emerge allergic to something. She is genetically destined.

With this history, I wasn't surprised, therefore, when just after Christmas this year, I broke out in hives for no apparent reason. Hives are raised, itchy welts that afflict allergic individuals. My hives seemed to arise in the midst of a hot yoga class. Exercise and heat are two known triggers to hives for allergic types. It also happened at a pretty stressful time in my life ( and stress is a known trigger). Plus it arose just after Christmas, which is a time when many foods are consumed that are high in histamines ( chemicals involved in the immune response.) Shrimp, cheese, alcohol ( especially red wine and port), chocolate, spinach, nuts, and celery are all foods with high histamine levels and indeed the day before my outbreak I had eaten almost everyone of those items.

But for almost a month I was miserable. My eyes were swollen and inflamed, I had hives around my hairline, back of ears, down my neck, on my chest, down my belly and down my legs. They ebbed and bloomed almost every day. Spicy food, exercise, and exertion all made them worse. I looked a red splotchy sight, but I felt even worse - itchy, irritable and perplexed. What had caused my hives and what did I need to do to make them go away? Some people live with hives for years. I was damned if I was going to be one of them. I had to get to the bottom of it.

I saw my family doctor three times in three weeks, each time being told I had "chronic idiopathic urticaria" ( meaning she had no idea why I had hives but they didn't seem to be going away.) She gave me different formulations of corticosteroid creams, but they didn't seem to work. I was taking a double dose of Benadryl at night and downing a Reactin every morning. By week three I even went for acupuncture -- weirdly cool but it didn't remove the hives, although I did feel much less itchy for 24 hours.  I researched chronic idiopathic urticaria extensively on the web. All the sites said you must be a sleuth and eliminate all possibilities both internal ( foods, drugs) and external ( products) and then add them back to see what happens. If not, you may fight hives for five, ten and fifteen years.

By week four, I finally got into the dermatologist. His examination lasted, I swear, less than 1 minute, in which he said :  "Seems to be no pattern to the distribution, so must be internal" and wrote me a prescription for an even stronger corticosteroid.

But his words stuck in my head: perhaps there was a hidden pattern to the distribution? I started at the top - if the hives were around my face and head, what was I using on my hair that might be triggering it?

In the shower later that day, I noticed how the water traced a path flowing down from my face over my eyes and body. It was a direct path of my hives! It was something I was using in my shower. The first thing I eliminated was my Herbal Essence Hello Hydration coconut and orchid hair conditioner. My kids and I love this stuff and have used it for at least five years with great results.

I stepped out of the shower and for the first time in a month was not newly itchy and sporting a fresh bloom of hives ( my doctor and I thought it was the heat of the water that was triggering it in the previous weeks.) In a day I was not itchy, within three days, normal. I had somehow become sensitized to a product I had used hundreds upon hundreds of times with wonderful results.

So here is a tip for you allergic types. If you get hives, something you have been using for years may suddenly trigger them. You, and your doctors, may not think there is a pattern, but start at the highest point on your body. If it starts at your head, think of something you use on your face or hair.  Look for a distribution.  If I had really looked I would have seen it weeks earlier.

Suddenly in the shower, the light went on for me, and then four weeks of misery was halted in 24 hours.

But now I am in the market for a good, hypo-allergic hair conditioner. Any suggestions?

Posted on Saturday, January 29, 2011 at 12:40AM by Registered CommenterAnne | Comments1 Comment | References1 Reference

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Reader Comments (1)

Doctor made $150 for that 1 minute visit. Having encountered this sort of treatment as well, must comment that he/she could have spent another minute or even three, and made suggestions such as trying to switch conditioners. Strikes me as poor medical practice to go the all-too-easy route and write out another prescription w/out getting to the 'root' of the problem.
April 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDO

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