Never mind tree pollen; what if you were al­ler­gic to the very stu of life, like wa­ter or the sun. Yep, it’s a thing. Health writer Rose­mary Counter re­cently ex­plored the world of out-there al­ler­gies, but not be­fore she packed her tis­sues.

Best Health - - CONTENTS -

Nut-free? No prob­lem. Sun-free? Not so easy.

AL­LER­GIC TO CATS, DUST OR POLLEN? THAT sucks, of course, but know that many itchy peo­ple feel your pain: about one in three Cana­di­ans, ac­cord­ing to a 2010 sur­vey. You might think your im­mune sys­tem needs strength­en­ing – its job, af­ter all, is to rec­og­nize for­eign bac­te­ria, fungi and viruses and re­act ac­cord­ingly – but, ac­tu­ally, the op­po­site is true.

“Al­ler­gies are an in­ap­pro­pri­ate im­mune re­sponse to be­nign things in the en­vi­ron­ment,” ex­plains Dr. Peter Vadas, head of al­lergy and clin­i­cal im­munol­ogy at St. Michael’s Hos­pi­tal in Toronto. “Your body is re­act­ing to some­thing when it re­ally shouldn’t bother.”

An over­ac­tive im­mune sys­tem of­ten goes over­board with hay fever or cat dan­der, but take small com­fort that bod­ies can get far odder than that. “Al­ler­gies are very broad, com­plex and con­fus­ing,” ad­mits Dr. Leah Has­sall, a natur­o­pathic doc­tor in Vic­to­ria, BC, “but ba­si­cally you can be al­ler­gic to al­most any­thing.” Grab your tis­sues, here goes.


A true sun al­lergy is called so­lar ur­ticaria (ur­ticaria is the fancy name for hives, which 20 per­cent of us will break out in at some point in our lives). “It’s a rare al­lergy where peo­ple re­act to ul­tra­vi­o­let light and de­velop hives,” says Dr. Vadas. “Even ul­tra­vi­o­let light from f lu­o­res­cent bulbs can trig­ger it, so these peo­ple need to be cov­ered from head to toe – it’s a very dis­abling con­di­tion.” He says a treat­ment with oma­l­izumab, a bi­o­logic drug, can be very ef­fec­tive for this and other forms of hives. Much more com­mon, es­pe­cially for women, is poly­mor­phous light erup­tion (PMLE), or your reg­u­lar old heat rash. Sun-ex­posed skin goes itchy, prickly and red (or pink) for many of us and of­ten on the first few days of va­ca­tion down south. It’s not dan­ger­ous; it’s just a nui­sance.


Re­mem­ber be­ing asked at ev­ery den­tist ap­point­ment if you were al­ler­gic to la­tex? That’s be­cause, not long

ago, la­tex al­ler­gies were so preva­lent, they bor­dered on com­mon. “We had tons of pow­dered la­tex prod­ucts and way more la­tex float­ing around the air,” says Dr. Lori Con­nors, an al­ler­gist and im­mu­nol­o­gist based in Hal­i­fax. Gloved health­care work­ers were at par­tic­u­lar risk, and symp­toms ranged from mild to localized to full-on ana­phy­laxis (a rapid-on­set, po­ten­tially fa­tal re­ac­tion that re­quires a visit to the emer­gency room pronto). Much rarer now, peo­ple with la­tex al­ler­gies (one to six per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion) re­act to a pro­tein in the rub­ber and ex­pe­ri­ence im­me­di­ate symp­toms, like hives, swelling and rhini­tis (this is a con­cern for ana­phy­laxis), or de­layed symp­toms, like runny nose, itch­ing, scratchy throat and wa­tery eyes. Con­dom users get all that un­pleas­ant­ness in vagi­nal rash form, so they need to switch to lamb­skin. Fun fact: Those with la­tex al­ler­gies tend to be al­ler­gic to kiwi fruit, chest­nuts, ba­nanas and avo­ca­dos be­cause they’re all from the same plant fam­ily, ex­plains Dr. Con­nors.


If you think a la­tex al­lergy might squash your sex life, pre­pare your­self: “It’s rare, of course, but semen can cer­tainly cause an al­ler­gic re­ac­tion and even ana­phy­laxis,” says Dr. Con­nors. Sem­i­nal plasma hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity (usu­ally an al­ler­gic re­ac­tion to a pro­tein in semen rather than sperm it­self) is mainly seen in young women, but an al­ler­gic an­ti­body to your part­ner’s semen could de­velop over time. In this case, un­pro­tected in­ter­course can cause red­ness, ir­ri­ta­tion, itch­ing, swelling (ouch!) and ana­phy­laxis, and there are even su­per-rare cases where a re­ac­tion is ac­tu­ally a food al­lergy in dis­guise (“like where a boyfriend eats peanuts and his girl­friend re­acts,” says Dr. Con­nors). Luck­ily, a con­dom can fix this prob­lem tonight. And some more good news here: As­sum­ing that you’re not avoid­ing sex­ual con­tact al­to­gether, a semen al­lergy will not cause in­fer­til­ity. “If you’re try­ing for a baby, you might have to try a de­sen­si­ti­za­tion process,” she says. (It’s nei­ther as sexy nor as un­sexy as you might think!)


Any­one with a healthy ac­ces­sory habit knows that some jew­ellery – es­pe­cially the cheap, hastily ac­quired, knock­off va­ri­ety – can lead to an un­sightly, of­ten green rash that screams “fake.” “That’s a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion,” says Dr. Has­sall, “specif­i­cally an ox­i­diza­tion of metal al­loys.” But even ex­pen­sive jew­ellery can ox­i­dize. The cul­prit is of­ten cop­per, but this ox­i­diza­tion isn’t dan­ger­ous – mostly just an­noy­ing (and not so pretty). Nickel is a com­mon al­loy that causes a con­tact al­lergy, lead­ing to itchy red skin for the 15 to 20 per­cent of in­di­vid­u­als who are af­fected, ac­cord­ing to Dr. Has­sall. But jew­ellery-clad women aren’t the only suf­fer­ers here. “I’ve seen many men with an un­ex­plain­able rash near their belly but­tons and it’s ac­tu­ally the nickel in their belt buck­les,” says Dr. Has­sall. Ditto for a sus­pi­cious red rash on a man’s up­per thigh – the pocket where he stores his loose change, of course. “There seems to be less of a chance of a con­tact al­lergy to jew­ellery made of plat­inum and stain­less steel,” says Dr. Has­sall.


Hop­ing you might have this one? Nice try, but prob­a­bly not. A post-work­out rash (called cholin­er­gic ur­ticaria, or hives caused by sweat­ing) is very nor­mal and no ex­cuse to quit the gym. A much big­ger worry is ex­er­cise-in­duced ana­phy­laxis, but most of us shouldn’t worry. “This doesn’t tend to hap­pen to some­one who goes for a gen­tle walk,” ex­plains Dr. Con­nors. “It’s more likely to be ex­pe­ri­enced by high-level ath­letes or peo­ple train­ing for marathons.” Those with food-de­pen­dent ana­phy­laxis might have the same re­ac­tion – if and only if they’ve in­gested a spe­cific food like wheat, shell­fish or cel­ery. “Ex­er­cise with­out that food and noth­ing hap­pens,” says Dr. Vadas. “Eat that food with­out ex­er­cise and noth­ing hap­pens. It’s the com­bi­na­tion that does it.”


A com­mon al­lergy ques­tion: Can you re­ally be al­ler­gic to wa­ter? A not-so-sat­is­fy­ing an­swer: kind of. Aqua­genic ur­ticaria is acute hives trig­gered by ex­po­sure to wa­ter, though doc­tors be­lieve that it’s ac­tu­ally bac­te­rial pro­teins on the skin that give rise to hives when they get wet. There’s also a sep­a­rate con­di­tion called cold-in­duced ur­ticaria – it’s a re­ac­tion to the tem­per­a­ture of the wa­ter rather than the wa­ter it­self. Both hot and cold are pos­si­ble, says Dr. Vadas, but cold-in­duced ur­ticaria is much more se­vere – and not be­cause of the hives. “If you dive into ice-cold wa­ter, the blood ves­sels in the skin be­come por­ous and leaky, f luid es­capes within the blood ves­sels into sur­round­ing tis­sue and blood pres­sure falls,” he says. If you hap­pen to fall through ice, for ex­am­ple, this could be life-threat­en­ing. “Peo­ple lose con­scious­ness and can die by drown­ing,” he says.


Der­matographism ( “writ­ing on the skin” in Latin) is a re­ac­tion to al­most noth­ing at all if you can be­lieve it. “You’re not re­act­ing to an anti­gen,” says Dr. Has­sall. “It’s just his­tamine re­leased due to the pres­sure of touch.” For be­tween four and five per­cent of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, a nail traced along their arm leaves a line-shaped welt there just a few min­utes later. (The mark should di­min­ish in half an hour with­out treat­ment.) Even the light­est scratch can leave a mark, but it’s noth­ing more than a nui­sance for some. “For oth­ers, it can ac­tu­ally be kind of beau­ti­ful,” says Dr. Con­nors. “Peo­ple can write whole po­ems on their legs.” You can find at-home reme­dies on­line for this, plus some sup­port­ive new e-friends who have it, too.


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