Something’s living on my skin

Did God who gave us flowers and trees also provide the allergies

E Y Harburg, lyricist

When we went to New Zealand for the first time, Raisa was only two.

We remember the trip vividly because it was there that we discovered that our child had asthma. She suffered breathing difficulties at a friend’s home and had to be rushed to hospital where she was speedily and efficiently treated. 

The pollen count – a difficult job, that – especially if you’ve got allergies. As the doctor in the emergency section of Auckland’s hospital informed us: “This is the asthma capital of the world.”

I’m happy to report that Raisa is now an asthma-free young adult mainly because she took up swimming as a child and became a strong one. This was also thanks to a doctor who advised just such a course of action when we returned home from New Zealand. 

But it was the first time I was confronted with the savagery of allergies. 

Then in my mid-30s, I found my fingers swelling after a gig at a pub where a pal and me played once a week. You could say I itched to see a doctor only to be casually informed I was allergic to nickel. 

I told him I’d been playing guitar since I was 16. He shrugged indifferently: “It happens.” But it was cool: I switched to phosphor-bronze strings and that was that. 

But that was certainly not that in my mid-fifties. I became aware that certain foods distressed me. It peaked after a trip to India when it became obvious that I had at least one thing in common with bees – hives. 

The specialist I went to see suggested I do an allergy test and drew blood for the purpose. When I went back for the results, he informed me, with a raised eyebrow, that I was allergic to crustaceans, peanuts and wheat. 

I wasn’t crazy about prawns or crab and I could easily give peanuts a miss but wheat?

“Welcome to old age,” said my doctor cheerfully. “Nobody said life was fair.”

Allergies are no joke. Essentially, it is a damaging immune response by the body to a substance like food or dust that it has become hypersensitive to. 

Some allergies are a mere nuisance. My daughter, for example, is allergic to dust mites. On a recent visit to our apartment in Singapore, she sneezed repeatedly in the living room and we diagnosed the furniture: its cushions probably hadn’t changed for the longest time. 

The management of our service apartment kindly brought in new furniture and, voila, problem solved. 

But other allergies like a nut aversion are potentially fatal. That’s anaphylactic shock for you in a nutshell. 

But the strangest one I’ve heard came from an ex-journalist friend of mine who’d returned home to Texas to pursue a new career in information technology. 

On a recent trip to Singapore, Matthew told us he’d been bitten by a tick while hiking through the woods. He thought nothing of it until after he’d had a steak dinner that night. 

He woke up in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Austin to be told he had developed a rare condition passed on through tick bites: a violent allergy to mammalian meat. Matthew could still eat chicken, turkey or fish but beef, lamb or pork were potentially fatal choices. 

Like all allergy sufferers, I have learnt to live my life by never leaving home without it: antihistamines. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon must have been a fellow sufferer because he wrote a song about it. 

I also agree with his conclusion on Allergies.“You get better but you never get well.”