I was in college before I finally visited an allergist for testing. I knew I’d inherited a set of (food and airborne) allergies from my parents, but before testing I never could have imagined how bad it really was.
My first round of testing was performed in the office of my family’s allergist, in Texas. (Yes, we had a family allergist. He knew each of us by name, and he could recite most of our history from the amount of time he spent with us.) During the first round of testing, 70-ish little plastic devices with metal prongs were placed in liquid allergen solutions and then pressed into the skin of my arms. Then I was calmly and plainly–without any hint of what was to come–told to sit and wait for 20 minutes while my skin reacted.
My skin didn’t just react. It became downright pissed. off.
My mother–who had carpooled with me since she needed an allergy shot that day anyway–sat reading a magazine and giggling while I squirmed in my chair as nearly 50 huge red welts rose up on my arms. I tried to get her to talk and distract me, but she wasn’t able to focus on conversation because she was laughing so hard at the image of me wiggling like a baby with a dirty diaper while I held my arms out in front of me mummy-style.
Imagine ant bites, lots of them, rising up on your skin all at once and by the tens. That’s what this felt and looked like.
The nurse returned to the room an eternity later, and her reaction is still imprinted on my mind. With one glance at my arms, she exclaimed “Oh, Lord!”, before clapping a hand over her mouth and setting to work grabbing a chart and a ruler so she could measure my reactions. (I know what you’re thinking. Someone in her profession should no longer be surprised when people test positive to stuff. That’s exactly what entered my mind at the time.)
I waited for another eternity while the nurse measured the size of each bump, noted it in the chart, then re-measured to be sure. Then, finally, she used wet wipes to clean my arms before she slathered hydrocortisone cream on my skin. Aaaahhh, sweet relief! Kind of, anyway, because those suckers still itched like crazy, even after the hydrocortisone had time to set in! Looking at my face, the nurse didn’t even have to ask if I wanted another cake frosting layer of hydrocortisone cream before she stepped out to let the allergist read me my rights results.
My allergist looked at my chart and, in his no-nonsense way, said “Well, C, I think we’d save ourselves some time if instead of showing you what you’re allergic to, we just walk through what you’re not allergic to.”
Here’s how he explained it to me:
N = not allergic
2 and 2+ = Allergic and more allergic, so these are moderate irritants which will probably require OTC treatment when they’re prevalent in the air
4 and 4+ (the highest reaction level) = Invaders! People who are allergic to these items should hide in their bubbles as long as these plants are blooming/flowering/existing anywhere nearby. In my opinion, every item on this list which has a 4 next to it should be systematically wiped off the face of the planet. I know, I know! I just admitted this on Earth Day, of all days. Shame on me! But there’s a reason why I keep my blog semi-anonymous: so that I can confess ugly thoughts like this without being harassed by a bunch of angry readers waving mulberry or pecan or willow or cedar–you get the point–branches in my face.
I already knew I was allergic to the world, so finally having something to prove it was a relief (especially since I could now fulfill my life-long dream of having a pet cockroach). My allergist immediately sent an order to have my first batch of allergy medication mixed, so I could start weekly injections ASAP to try to combat some of my everyday symptoms: itchy eyes, sneezing, asthma flare-ups, multi-annual respiratory infections, depression symptoms, etc. Hallelujah!
After moving to California several years later, I had to be re-tested when I began having routine sneezing fits again. This time I laid on my stomach while a nurse cultivated angry, itching bumps all over my back, and the end result was nearly the same: I am allergic to everything. No big surprise there! I immediately started the injection routine over with a new set of allergens, and I had to work my way up starting with the smallest dose.
Allergy injections are administered subcutaneously, which means they’re delivered by a short needle into the tissue just under the skin. Mine were always administered in the backs of my arms, alternating arms so they wouldn’t become too bruised. Once injections begin, the dosage gradually increases. The body builds up a greater tolerance of–or resistance to–the allergens as the concentration increases, until one “graduates” from the program after several years, only to require a maintenance injection once monthly or less frequently. That path toward graduation is a bumpy one, though.
I’ve never had an anaphylactic reaction to the injections, but on one occasion a nurse misread my dosage amount and tripled what I should have received. Everything seemed normal as I waited the required 30 minutes before leaving the allergist’s office. The nurse checked my arms for swelling and then dismissed me. I drove home and for about an hour was fine, until suddenly my throat started itching like I’d buried my face in a cat’s fur. The itching spread, my airways became clogged, and I started to panic just a bit. My mom was home at the time, so when I told her she called the doctor to tell him what was happening. He ordered a double dose of Benadryl immediately and then instructed my mom to check my skin for redness and swelling. (I didn’t hear his order, though, so when my mom and sister ran into the room where I was sprawled and started ripping my clothes off me, I was more than a bit confused.) There was no rash or redness, so the doctor advised they sit and wait. They watched me like a hawk while I clawed at my throat, which felt like it was full of fire ant bites, and I blew my nose over and over trying to stop the itching in my sinuses. After a while the flare-up finally died down, and I was left feeling as if I’d fought and lost a battle and then taken a wire drill brush to my sinuses and throat.
When the concentration of my injections increased, I began developing fluid swelling at the injection sites. I have puny arms, so the sudden development of skin folds and jiggling extra stuff over my triceps had to be covered up with long sleeves, since it was so noticeable. After the swelling went down, I’d sometimes wind up with four bruises–one for every injection site. I’d hide it as best I could, then sometimes I’d have to receive more injections before the bruises of the last week had faded.
Since we’ve moved to the Northwest, I’m feeling the wrath of allergens again. And since I originally drafted this post, my husband and I are planning another move back to Texas in a couple of months. So for now I’ll just wait and see what happens, I guess. And I’ll keep my emergency truckload of Claritin and tissues handy, just in case.