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Allergies: Personal stories

Susan, 53 (food allergies)

I did not know I had allergies until I was 32, when I discovered that I have a lot of them. It took me more than five years and lots of good humor to get my allergies under control, not to mention the three decades that passed before I knew what was making me sick. I have come to realize that treating allergies can be like peeling an artichoke: each symptom can lead to different underlying causes. Though medical tests and treatments helped me somewhat, my continuing efforts to accept my limitations and maintain an environment free from allergens are the reasons why I feel better now than I did 20 years ago.

For many years, I baffled doctors with my motley array of symptoms: throwing up, mild earaches, drained of energy. I was a one-woman science experiment. One day, after going through my usual list of ailments to my newest doctor, she suggested I might have allergies. This was a new one, and I perked up at the notion that my problems might be solved by a few easy shots. Dr. Debbie told me about an allergist she knew, but cautioned me strongly that I should not get my hopes up for a quick fix. Allergies can be hard to pinpoint, and difficult to treat.

I went to the allergist -- and I went back to the allergist. The skin-prick test had revealed a severe reaction to dust, which meant I would have to start taking allergy shots and de-dust my house. But like most people with allergies, I was still in the beginning of my journey. The shots seemed to work -- at least my throwing-up had stopped -- but I still got regular headaches and did not feel completely well. At this point my allergist told me to try taking "the food challenge" -- eliminate from my diet for two weeks each of the three most allergenic foods: eggs, milk, and wheat. It really was a challenge -- try finding six consecutive weeks when you can eat in every night, cooking everything from scratch, and omitting the three most common foods in the American diet!

It took me several weeks to prepare myself and my family for the first leg of the challenge. I decided to start with eliminating milk because it seemed like the most straightforward of the three. The night before going dairy-free, the whole family helped me test it out by going to a Chinese restaurant near our home. We ordered the usual array of dishes, including one that had a "velvet" sauce made from egg whites. We all enjoyed the dinner, but the next day I woke up with hives all over my body and a fever. Scientist that I am, I decided to change the food elimination schedule and start by cutting out eggs instead of milk. Four days into my egg-free diet I felt like a new person; I actually felt well!

Since my revelation about eggs, life has been much easier, and harder. I had to re-learn cooking, train myself not to give in to the temptation of cakes and other things made with eggs, and become skilled at knowing what foods may contain egg when there is no label to tell you. Food is more than physical sustenance; it is also social and emotional. Besides all the other changes, I had to accept that I have food allergies. I do not like telling strangers about them, but sometimes I have to (like in a restaurant). I also have to trust that they understand the severity of my allergies, and will work in my best interest to help me avoid them. I had yet to discover my allergy to nuts, but peeling away all those other allergies helped me isolate and eliminate that one fairly quickly. After five years of shots, a complete diet revolution, and new housekeeping habits, I am finally healthy.

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