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The Never-ending Sneeze

Updated on November 23, 2011

The Bane of Allergies

The Never-ending Sneeze

I remember as a teenager thinking that people who had allergies were hypochondriacs, or had maybe had a case of misdiagnosed tuberculosis or something. So-and-so couldn’t do this or that because they “had allergies” and needed to spend the day inside with a box of tissues and an inhaler. And I (it being the 1980s and all) was like, what-EV-er…

Well, I learned long ago that karma is a mean muthah, and this instance of it coming back to bite a snarky adolescent was no different.

Sometime in my early twenties I developed allergies, hay fever, and eczema – the Unholy Trinity. I kind of remember thinking, “Hmm. Geez. Seems like I’ve had a cold for six months. Seems like my eyes are always swollen up, especially when I go outside. And why is it the stuffier my nose is, the more my skin itches and bubbles? And why…. Uh oh. Aw, crap – maybe allergies do exist.” So what’s it like to have allergies? I’ll tell you – it’s like having a freaking cold every day of your life. No amount of Nyquil or vitamin C is ever going to make you feel any better. You wake up feeling like hell and go to bed the same way. It feels like your sinuses are trying to push out your teeth. Your voice always sounds afflicted with the beginnings of laryngitis, and you make yourself all that more appealing by constantly trying to clear your throat to talk. I do my eye makeup carefully every morning only to have it run into crusty little rivulets 5 minutes after I walk outside. No matter how much sleep you get, you always look like you’ve been on a 4-day bender in Tijuana, only you don’t have any cool stories to tell. People ask you every day if you’re sick, tired, on good drugs, or have been crying.

So WHY haven’t I done something about it, you ask. And I can tell you that while now I alternate between whining about it and accepting it, I did try. For like 15 years. I tried one prescription drug after another (most of these are now over-the-counter), only to spend a lot of money on stuff that only worked for a couple of months, one of which would leave gaping holes of lost time in my memory (that’s funny – I truly have no recollection of driving here. Why am I standing in the greeting cards aisle?). I tried a steroid nasal spray that made me break out in something called perioral dermatitis, affectionately known as muzzle rash. That is not a good look for anyone. I looked like someone had dragged me along the sidewalk by my face for a few blocks, and it took six months and an expensive round of antibiotics and topical gel that smelled like sulfur and burning tires to get rid of those angry little red bumps.

I know, I know, haven’t I heard of allergy shots?! My response to that then, and now, is, are you effing kidding me? Sign up for shots so that they can punch me with needles only to tell me I’m allergic to absolutely everything and that I should probably live out my days in a just-prepped operating room OR start their allergy injection regimen whereby I can figure out a way to drive across town twice a week for two years straight while juggling a full-time job and a family and oh-by-the-way, there’s a pretty good chance the shots won’t “take,” and you’ll be back to square one. *sigh*

I’ve tried exposure avoidance and experimenting with my habits and surroundings. I’ve had pets and I’ve had no pets – didn’t make any difference. I’ve tried not wearing any cosmetics (no makeup, hairspray, or perfume), which not only made no difference, but my appearance frightened small children and squirrels. Everyone always told me that the climate makes all the difference – both the humidity factor and the accompanying flora and fauna. Well, I’ve done the Midwest, mountains, desert, and coast, and while one symptom may be better in one locale, some other symptom will be worse.

I would say my allergies act up the most at the office. Gee – I wonder why? You have several hundred people crammed together in little cubes in buildings that only experience fresh air when someone opens the front doors three floors below you. We walk our dirty shoes on carpets full of particulate chemicals that I would bet my left lung have NEVER been shampooed. We sit at desks made of pressed wood and laminate (more chemical cocktails); these desks are covered in paper that leaches formaldehyde and dust. And we won’t even get into what’s lurking on your average person’s keyboard.

Outside is no better. There’s pollen, trees, grass, blooms, spores, ozone, and more dust. You have a certain amount of control over your house, but unless you plan on building yourself an enclosure made entirely of something non-porous and sterile and ultimately really ugly and uncomfortable, you’ll have bad days there, too.

So, it basically comes down to antihistamines. Benadryl is the only substance to date that will both stop my face from imitating a faucet and extinguish the eternal fire in my eyes. But as many of you know, Benadryl (or any antihistamine) comes with a price, which is uncontrollable sleepiness. I’m talking about passing out cold while you’re walking down the hall drowsiness. And so I try to only take it when I’m ready for bed. When I’ve gotten desperate and taken it with the intention of remaining cognizant, the results have included drooling on myself and falling off my chair and grunting, “Huh!! Ungh! “ You know – like what you’d do in those late afternoon or early morning classes when you couldn’t stay awake for love or money and kept doing the nod-and-have a nanosecond dream of falling off a cliff thing? That behavior is okay in Zoology 101 when you’re sitting in the back of a lecture hall, but not at a staff meeting.

The sinus rinse thing also provides a degree of relief. While it was rather unnerving that first time (whaddya mean I’m gonna shoot water up one nostril and run it out the other? WHAAAAT?), once I realized I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by drowning in 14 ounces of water, it was fine. No end all/cure all, but it helps to keep you breathing through your nose.

Now that you’ve sat through my whining manifesto, here are a few tips I’ve found over the years that can help a bit if you are also one of the afflicted. Obviously, you should consult your doctor or webMD at the very least, but the following are just from my personal experience:

· Always, and I mean always, carry Benadryl. Whether you’re out and about and get the sniffles from Aunt Myna’s cat or go into near anaphylactic shock from a bee sting, you’ll be grateful to have the stuff on you.

· Try a sinus rinse (in squeeze bottle or the Neti-pot by NeilMed). Even if it doesn’t work for you personally, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you can breathe water and still live.

· D*mn the ulcer and eat hot foods when you can – go heavy on the red pepper and chili powder. Spicy foods release the sinuses.

· Press on your tear ducts from time to time; it’ll make a frightening sucking/squishing noise and gross things will run down the back of our throat, but at least some fluid will drain from your head, so it’ll almost be worth it.

· Pay attention to the weather posts and your surroundings and either try to avoid the situation or take your meds. That nice breeze blowing around those pretty little tree blossoms and sprouting grass seed is trying to kill you.

· Change your sheets a minimum of once a week. Get a bedspread that you can launder frequently and conveniently. That chic black silk duvet might look pretty, but under a microscope, it’s probably dirtier than a Greyhound bus station bathroom. Downgrade to something that you don’t have to dry clean.

· Dust and vacuum as frequently as you can stand it. Change your furnace filter every couple of months. Brush and bathe your animals as often as you can catch them and recover from the scratches and bite wounds. Buy new pillows every chance you get, and get the best ones you can afford.

· Decrease the use of chemicals as much as possible on your person and in your home. Use the dye and fragrance-free laundry detergent, and clean with white vinegar instead of bleach and those neat products that come in pretty colors and smell like a spring meadow. Your house won’t smell as nice, but there’s also a pretty good chance your hands won’t be broken out in itchy little blisters to accompany the wheezing in your chest.

· If your eyes are anywhere near as sensitive as mine (those celebrities they photograph stumbling out of a club at 3:00 a.m.? Yeah - their eyes look better than mine on any given day), try those preservative-free lubrication drops for some relief. They’ll keep some of that sticky film from blocking your vision, and take out some of the burn.

· Hardwood floors versus carpet helps, if you have that choice. And leather or naugahyde furniture rather than fabric. If you can wash it, it’s probably a better choice than something that’s difficult or impossible to thoroughly clean.

In the meantime, I notice that my 3 year-old daughter sneezes roughly 15 times a day, and just hope she doesn’t inherit the same genetic misery.

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