My little sister had always been the cursed one. Through all four seasons, she would sneeze incessantly, sniffle so hard due to stubborn congestion, and then have to catch her breath.
I felt for her as she devoured Kleenex after Kleenex, using it to rub the inside of her nose really hard, sneezing six or seven times in a row. It was mysterious; none of the rest of us had any issues like that.
No season was sacred. The spring and summer brought the usual suspects: tree, grass, and flower pollens. We wanted to tar and feather anyone who mowed their lawns, which, in suburbia, was everyone.
When the first snow fell, one would think that she’d enter a period of relief, or at least reprieve.
Nope. There’s something called “snow mold”, and it was alive and well in my sister’s sinuses. Snow mold: cruelest joke ever.
She finally moved to Alberta, Canada, where the climate is drier. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better.
I’m really happy for her.
She seemed to grow out of her allergies, for the most part.
I grew into mine.
One morning, I woke up slightly stuffy. No big deal. I got up and around, and started doing my Thing.
I felt a tickle in my nose. I sneezed. One sneeze turned into four or five, with increasing intensity and force.
My nose ran hard. I drenched one Kleenex, then another.
It was unreal.
As usual, my brain frantically searched for answers. Fresh out of med school, I ran the differential diagnosis process on myself.
Could this be a head cold? I was no stranger to those. I had caught five upper respiratory viruses in the last six months of school alone. I was quite the pro, and my body was quite the attractive breeding ground for those viruses. After all, I was chronically stressed out, depleted. I had also just made a nearly-300-mile move, signed on a new apartment, and was trying to both start a business and sell a house, neither of which are wise in a bad economy.
The symptoms I was experiencing were baffling. I was certainly sneezing enough for it to be a head cold. And my extensive, seasoned resume of head colds had proven just how suddenly they could pop up. And this had been extremely sudden.
I didn’t have the usual drainy throat that so often came with my usual head cold, though, nor did I feel the overall “icky” feeling that a head cold so frequently “gifted” me with. Nor were there any fever or chills that always came with a head cold.
So this was a really odd cold. But I didn’t think too much of it, since it was getting warmer outside, and my colds tend to behave differently in warmer weather.
What I couldn’t make sense of, however, was the extreme itchiness I felt on the inside of my nose. That was completely new and out of the ordinary for any cold I had ever gotten (which, by that time, age 32.5, had numbered literally in the hundreds; I had been a sickly kid, teenager, and adult).
I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t exactly a garden variety head cold.
There seemed to be a vicious cycle that circled on itself. First, I would feel the urge to sneeze (which usually materialized). Then, my nose would run. I would blow my nose and wipe it dry. Then, the inside of my nose would itch. I would satisfy the itch with a Kleenex…and feel another sneeze (or seven) coming on.
The sneezing itself was uncharacteristically violent. It didn’t matter what I was doing at the time, it just happened. I could have been in the middle of writing a word and I would sneeze, without even being able to put it off until I had finished writing the word. I learned fairly quickly to just stop writing and hover my pen above the paper.
The sneezes started to come in rapid succession, often building to strings of four or five in a row. They got louder and louder, beyond my control, despite my desire to use my Indoor Sneeze Voice. If the cats were in the room, they soon learned to scatter. They caught on quickly; they learned that one sneeze was only the first in what would become a series.
I thought, this has to be an allergy. That surprised me. I’ve never had allergies before–at least, none that had posed a problem. Sure, my mom brought me in to be tested for allergies and a bunch of results came back positive, but had I not been tested, I wouldn’t have known, because I never had any symptoms.
Until that one day, a little over seven years ago.
And my Allergy Theory was clinched the next morning, by the fact that I was entirely back to normal, with none of the symptoms I’d had the day before. I had unusual residue in my nose and sinuses, but I was otherwise perfectly fine.
I thought, OK, that was weird. Maybe it’s an isolated incident. Nothing more to see here, move on and carry on with life.
About a week later, give or take, it happened again. The exact same thing. And again, five days after that. And then yet again, ten days after that.
Something happened. Something had broken in my body.
I tried to figure out what the culprit might be. I paid close attention to the temperature, humidity levels, wind direction, whether it happened more when I was inside or outside, the season, the dominant pollens in the air that day, any yard work being done in my area, which flowers or trees were in bloom, and so on.
I found no association with wind direction or humidity levels. It didn’t seem to get better or worse whether I was inside or outside.
It did seem to get worse every time the air conditioning kicked on, and I got a reprieve for three months in the wintertime, for a while. It also seemed to flare up any time we stayed in a budget hotel–the kind where the cheapie furnace/air conditioning unit sits under the window.
I also tried every remedy I could think of. I tried probiotics, homeopathics (for molds, fungi, pollens, etc), Vitamin D (for immune system support), Vitamin C (just 2,000 milligrams knocks down histamine levels by 58%!), having our air conditioning ducts cleaned, dusting regularly, vacuuming regularly, remaining vigilant about the kitty litter box, getting a dehumidifier and maintaining it regularly, switching types of cat litter, installing high-end HEPA filters and changing them every two weeks, using a Neti pot to rinse/flush my sinuses with warm saline water… everything.
Benadryl was the only remedy that worked for me. Zyrtec and Claritin were useless for me, as was any other non-drowsy allergy medicine. The natural remedies I had tried didn’t make a dent, either, unfortunately.
We moved, to a much better apartment, and for eight blissful months, I had no problems at all. Yay! Problem solved. It must have been something in that other, crappy apartment. I suspected the roaches; they emit proteins into the air that cause allergies in a lot of people. And our whole building had been completely infested. Glad to be out of there. Sayonara. I thought I was Free At Last…
…until I attended a professional conference–at a hotel that had a damp, slightly moldy feel.
But then I was OK again, and I thought things might go back to normal once the conference was over three days later.
I waited a week (the average interval between what I had come to call “histamine attacks”) and held my breath. I think I prayed.
My prayers were not answered. The usual one-out-of-every-5-to-10-day histamine cycle was back.
At least I was becoming more adept at detecting the early signs. The first sign, if it popped up at night, was insomnia. Not every insomniac night demolished into a sneezing frenzy, but all of my late-night sneezing attacks had been preceded by insomnia.
The next sign was a tickle in my nose, an irritated feeling that warned of an attack just around the corner. Sometimes I could halt it, if (and this is going to sound gross, but I know I’m not the only one who does this) I could make a little wad out of the corner of a Kleenex and shove it up my nose for a while.
If not, then came the sneezing and itching and sniffling. If I caught this early enough, the Kleenex Wad Trick might work here, too. But I needed to be able to do this early on, because my histamine attacks build momentum over time, and pretty soon, only a Benadryl can stop it.
If I’m still early in the vicious cycle, I can get by with what I call a “single-action” Benadryl; this contains the anti-histamine (diphenhydramine) only.
However, about eight hours after the onset of the itching/sneezing, a tough, unmovable congestion sets in. The anti-histamine alone won’t take care of that. That requires what I’ve come to call a “dual-action” Benadryl; this has the decongestant pseudoephedrine alongside the diphenhydramine.
There’s one (annoying) catch: the diphenhydramine makes me drowsy, sometimes more so than at other times. So, being the only driver in our family (myself and my partner) until very recently, I couldn’t take it during the workday. This goes double for the days on which I had to meet with patients.
So I would often have to wait until I got home in order to take it. Well, by then, not only had I suffered through the first eight hours of itching/sneezing/blowing my nose, and the stubborn congestion had long since set in, but I also probably had a headache by then.
This would require what I’ve termed the Almighty Triple-Action, or the “Holy Trinity”: the Benadryl that contains the diphenhydramine, the pseudoephedrine, and a dose of acetaminophen (a pain-reliever, known as Tylenol in the US).
I do keep all three (yup, three) types of Benadryl on hand. I’ve also learned that anything besides the single action (anything containing pseudoephedrine) is kept behind the pharmacy counter, not on the shelves. That’s part of some ineffective initiative to halt the meth production issue in the US, because pseudoephedrine is apparently one of the main ingredients the meth labs use. Ugh. So meanwhile, the US still has an ever-growing meth problem, and I can’t get my dual- or triple-action Benadryl after 9pm.
Somehow, I stumbled across a research article abstract about how the alkaloids in tobacco helped shift the body away from a Th2 immune dominance (which is the issue in the case of excess histamine) and more toward its opposite, a Th1 dominance. And this correlated with a bunch of anecdotal reports I got from several other people.
Thus began my remedy of kretek use.
Unfortunately, it worked.
It’s been four years now, and although the histamine situation has vastly improved, the rest of my health has (predictably) gone to shit. So, I don’t recommend this path–at all.
Part of my health recovery involves mopping up the effects of this remedy, and it’s going to take years–and probably lots of money.
As for what to do about the histamine issue, I’m back at Square One, hitting the research abstracts, this time for any new material on herbal extracts and their dosages.
I don’t have any answers yet. I can’t use high doses of good, proven-effective stuff like quercetin, because of a genetic mutation. But I’m thinking about other stuff like stinging nettles and whatnot. And I’m sure I’ll uncover more options during my Benadryl-mandated relaxation time on the couch with my laptop.
As usual, time will tell.
I’ll keep you posted.