Allergies: We’re Not Making This Up

Since my last post, thankfully, things worked themselves out. Our landlord is turning out to be a super guy. He offered the would-be tenants and their dog another place he manages; it doesn’t have a fence so he is going to build them one. So it’s great news for us; we can stay indefinitely. He told us he would not rent to a family with pets as long as we’re living there.

When it comes to allergies, everyone is different, but people seem to fall into two camps: those who get better due to exposure, and those who get worse. The ones who get better are the ones who might get used to their own pet, or can handle a certain breed. Or maybe they grow out of their allergies in adulthood. This doesn’t happen for the ones who get worse. They just…well, get worse. Exposure makes them miserable and can eventually damage their lungs, or set off other allergies.

My husband Dan is definitely in the “get worse” camp. He’s deathly allergic to certain foods, and he has a laundry list of environmental allergies as well. (Disclaimer: I’m not an allergist, so everything I’m posting here is from my experience living with him.)

When we were first married, we didn’t know that much about allergies, and we tried to have a cat. We had a rare opportunity because my mom wanted a new kitten, and she agreed that we could try adopting one; if we couldn’t keep it she would be our back-up home.

We went to the local shelter and chose a long-haired brown tabby we named Loki. He came out of a litter of three other identical brown tabbies. He was sick with an upper respiratory infection. He was everything they tell you not to get when you pick out a pet: snotty, watery eyes…we knew he’d get worse if he wasn’t treated soon. So we adopted him and took him to the vet and wrestled him daily to give him his medicine, and soon we nursed him back to health.

We both loved that little guy so much. Since he went from being in a litter to being a single kitty, he wanted to be with us all the time. We tried to keep him out of the bedroom because of Dan’s allergies but he yowled at the door every night. Many nights I ended up sleeping with him on the couch, or trying to, since once he convinced me to be his nocturnal pal, he wanted to run up and down me and play.

The honeymoon lasted two months until Loki grew a little bigger. First we noticed Dan was slightly wheezy. He took over-the-counter drugs to help with that, and we followed lots of bad advice from the internet about how to keep pet dander down. We bought air purifiers (useless; cat dander is too small for most of them to filter out). We put HEPA filters on the vacuum. We washed down walls; we even bought a spray for the cat. But then Dan got really sick. He got a cold, and his lungs didn’t bounce back from it. His breathing sounded like Darth Vader’s. He had to go to an allergist and he was immediately told to get rid of the cat.

We thought about getting a second opinion, but it was pretty obvious how that would turn out; we’d let things go too far already. When Dan left the house he could breathe. When he came back he couldn’t. It royally sucked to have to give Loki away—for months I kept thinking I saw him out of the corner of my eye all over the apartment—but at least he just had to go to Mom’s where we could still visit.

Fast forward several years: someone we knew had puppies that needed homes. Dan wasn’t allergic to dogs as far as we knew. Plus, a dog could spend time outside. We thought we’d put up a fence, the dog would sleep outside, and it would all work out. So we got Bruno, our first dog.

It did work out for many years. I did most of the brushing, and even though Dan experienced mild symptoms, he was able to take some medications and manage them. We could even let the dog sleep inside. We thought maybe as far as dogs went, Dan was one of the lucky people who got used to their own pets over time. No cats for us, but hey, we could have dogs! So we did something really stupid: we went out and got a second dog, Dingo.

We shouldn’t have pushed the envelope, but still, it lasted over two years. Then things went downhill fast. Dan started having pretty bad respiratory symptoms again, and when he went to the allergist he was told that one or both of his medications had stopped working. His lungs were deteriorating. The allergist ordered a lung scan to make sure nothing else besides allergies was happening, and told us to rehome both dogs and take the carpet out of our house.

Again, it was a horrible experience. Worse than the Loki situation, because Loki had only gone to my mom’s where we could still visit. We’d also had the dogs for so much longer!  My brother-in-law agreed to take Bruno and that helped; we drove him to his new home that weekend.

We had to put Dingo outside until I could find her a home. I took photos and posted them all over the internet. I went out to spend time with her every evening and she was miserable. While Bruno was OK with being on his own, Dingo was a really social dog. The story has a happy ending though. We were able to place her fairly quickly with a family nearby who had three older kids and no other pets. I even got invited to visit, and I did for a while until I felt like I was becoming a stalker. As far as I know the family still has her.

During the dog fiasco, Dan found a really good allergist whom I’ll call Dr. B. Dr. B told him that environmental and food allergies are connected. The more he is exposed to environmental allergens, the more he can expect his food allergies to worsen. We knew he was allergic to eggs, but when we were first married he could eat a little chicken or turkey. Gradually the chicken allergy got worse. His symptoms got worse too. When he was younger, his throat would itch when he ate something he was allergic to, and he could fix it by taking benadryl or another OTC medication. At his worst point right after the dog years, he would nearly choke to death if he ate something cross-contaminated.

Another factor that complicates dealing with allergies is that the testing is not always accurate. There are blood tests and skin tests. Taking certain over-the-counter meds can throw either or both tests. The tests can also be misread. We’ve had several emergency room or urgent care visits we thought were because of cross-contamination that were really because of faulty testing.

Speaking of cross-contamination, we spend a ridiculous amount of time at the grocery store poring over labels. We can use foods with facility warnings but not “shared equipment.” More and more these days, companies are moving from having dedicated production lines for product X when they also make product Y, and they just slap the “produced on shared equipment” label on the back of certain foods. We used to be able to use at least five or six brands of noodles and now we’re hard-pressed to find a damn box of noodles that aren’t made on the same equipment with egg noodles.

Restaurants are total minefields. If fish is fried in the same oil as chicken it might not set Dan off, but it could. If something Dan eats is fried on a surface that has had eggs on it there’s a good chance he would have a reaction. When we do go out to eat we go armed with the allergy kit, and Dan tells the server about his allergies. We love finding places that can accommodate allergies, and we tip handsomely as long as nobody leaves on a stretcher. But there are many places we just have to avoid.

Watching someone go through a life-threatening allergic reaction is not pretty, and I certainly don’t envy the person actually going through it. The first time it happened to Dan, we did not have an epi-pen so he nearly lost his airway by the time paramedics arrived. He basically starts to choke on his own throat as it swells. There are other fun-filled symptoms, like his esophagus getting stuck in reject mode. Once he had to stay at the hospital for hours while the doctor tried to get that to stop, because even though the initial reaction was arrested, Dan couldn’t swallow water without throwing up and choking. What finally helped was when the a mixture of lidocaine and belladonna that numbed his entire digestive system.

So that’s a slice of life with allergies. What else did you use that knife for? Better wash it just in case.

The reason I wanted to tell this story, and thank you for reading if you made it to the end, is that I wanted to convey that allergies suck, and they’re serious. And some people don’t believe they’re real, or that they “aren’t that bad.” Nobody in their right mind would pretend to have allergies, and symptoms like “not breathing” are kind of hard to fake. Not a day in our lives goes by without thinking about allergies, and they affect nearly every decision we make. Where we live (as with this rental situation we just narrowly avoided). Who we can visit (do they have pets?). Where we work (benefits are a must-have). Where we go on vacation (are the restaurants allergy-friendly? Does the place allow pets?).

I’ve seen this most often in parenting groups where someone is complaining about the dreaded School Peanut Thing. “What am I going to send to school? She can’t have peanut butter!…Aha, Nutella!…crap, she can’t have that either! Where does it end?”

Yes, it’s an inconvenience. These days there is Sun Butter, so parents of picky eaters can rejoice about that. But please, before you lambast the school for not doing it some other way that doesn’t inconvenience you…take a moment to reframe and be thankful you aren’t the one dealing with allergies. That kid’s mom or dad is reading every label on every food at the store, making sure their $1000 epi-pen is up to date (at school and at home), awkwardly telling people in restaurants “If you screw this up I might die!” or avoiding them entirely, freaking out if their kid eats anything they haven’t cooked themselves.

“What about epi-pens?” It’s not that simple. For one thing there’s the cost. But even if your average allergic-person could afford an unlimited supply of epi-pens, they aren’t a magic bullet. You are supposed to see a doctor just for the side effects after you administer an epi-pen, and in many (most?) cases it doesn’t entirely stop the reaction. For Dan, epi-pens freeze the reaction and buy him enough time to get to the hospital where he can be treated with (usually) a combination of benadryl and steroids. If one epi-pen doesn’t work that’s what the second one is there for…but the more often they’re used, the less effective they may be the next time.

People also ask us sometimes “What about shots?” We are interested in the shots, but not everyone can even get allergy shots. Some allergies are too severe. Then we have the logistics. In our situation, Dan needs one shot a week for several months at least. My insurance covers part of it…but even if we did decide to shell out the money, we can’t do it right now because we don’t have the childcare. Dan would need to be observed for 2 or 3 hours each visit and he is the primary caregiver for our toddler son. If we had a guarantee that it would cure all the allergies, we might get around that problem. But allergy shots are an expensive gamble and many families can’t afford the money or time commitment.

Just like with any illness, people with allergies know what they can and can’t deal with, and challenging what they know about themselves is not helpful. So please, don’t take it personally if your school bans peanuts. Or when people with allergies have to ask what you put in that dish you made and then they say “I’d better not.” Or if we come to visit and can’t stay long even though all you have is a teacup chihuahua and you put it in the basement, and your Aunt Linda who is also allergic to dogs has no problem with Foofoo so you think he is hypoallergenic.

Nobody is trying to make your life harder or reject you; they’re just trying to avoid allergens, having to stab themselves in the leg, eat a bunch of drugs, go to the emergency room, and ultimately stay alive.



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