“Dust? You can’t be allergic to dust!”
I’m pretty sure you know people with allergies. Maybe you have allergies yourself. Are you allergic to nuts? Sesame? Dairy? Those are all fairly common allergies. But sometimes people get surprised when they hear what I’m allergic to. They scrunch up their noses and say, “Dust? You can’t be allergic to dust!” Well, I’m here to say that you sure can be allergic to dust. I am, and some of my siblings are, too. But let me start at the beginning.
Ever since I was little, I often had a runny nose. I sneezed a lot. Also, my eyes and the inside of my ears and the back of my throat would get itchy. Try scratching the back of your throat. Guess what? You can’t. So, I learned to make a horrible noise with the back of my throat that scratched the itch pretty well, but my family hated it. They also hated when I stuck my fingers in my ears and rubbed and rubbed, because they said it looked gross. But it gave me relief from the constant itchiness, so I kept doing it.
My playgroup teachers thought I had a chronic cold. My grandmother told my mother to stop feeding me milk products. The neighbor down the street admonished my mother for putting the air-conditioning on, telling her that she could tell I was being exposed to too much AC.
But turning off the air-conditioning and stopping dairy didn’t help. One day a family friend who also happened to be a pediatrician said to my mother, “You should have her tested for allergies.”
At the allergy test, the allergist (a doctor who treats allergies) used a needle to make eight tiny pinpricks in my arm. I sat very bravely and clutched my mother’s hand. Then she dropped a few drops of different liquids on the pinpricks in my arm. “Look, Chavi,” my mother said. “Each liquid has a different allergen in it. We’re going to see if there’s something that’s making you react all the time.”
“What’s an allergen?” I asked.
“Anything can be an allergen,” the doctor said. “Let’s use peanuts as an example. Peanuts are a safe and healthy food. But for some reason, some people’s bodies see peanuts as dangerous. When they eat peanuts, or sometimes even when they breathe in peanut particles, their body decides that they must be protected, and the body “goes to war” on the peanuts, causing many uncomfortable reactions, like rashes, throwing up, upset stomach, and even breathing difficulty. For those people, peanuts are an allergen. We want to see if there’s something that you’re eating that your body thinks is dangerous, which would cause your runny nose, sneezing, and itchy eyes, nose, and throat.”
Now I was curious. The allergist told us to wait in the waiting room for 20 minutes and then come back in.
As we waited, one of the spots on my arm got red and swollen. And itchy. When we went back in, the allergist looked at my arm and said: “Dust mite allergy.”
Then we got an education about a tiny creature we hadn’t known existed. Apparently dust mites are tiny, tiny bugs with eight legs (so they’re not called insects but rather arthropods, like spiders). They’re white and too small to be seen without a microscope.
And guess what? Dust mites like to eat something super gross. Did you know that we shed dead skin cells every day? I didn’t know that either, but apparently all people shed dead skin cells every single day, and dust mites eat them. And they also burrow into things like mattresses and carpets and live there, and they also make up a big part of the dust in most houses.
The allergist said we have to keep our house very clean and get rid of stuffed animals, curtains, and carpets. She said we have to wash my bedding in hot water every week and that if we wanted a rug, we’d have to wash that weekly, too. The doctor promised that doing all that would help my allergies. Apparently, when I breathed in dust mites, my body thought I was in danger and that triggered all the sneezing and runny nose and itchiness, which is how my body tried to get rid of the dust mites invading my system.
Before we left, the allergist also gave my mother a prescription for drops for me to take. She said they were called “antihistamines” and that they would help. “When a person with an allergy takes antihistamines, their body calms down and stops fighting the allergen so much, so the uncomfortable symptoms improve,” she said. “They’re not a cure, but they can help you manage your symptoms better.”
It was incredible; every time I took the drops, my runny nose dried up immediately, the itchiness went away, and I stopped sneezing. My eyes didn’t tear, and I didn’t need to take tissues with me everywhere I went.
Pesach cleaning is challenging, because it stirs up lots and lots of dust. I always sneeze a lot, and my eyes water and everything gets itchy again. When I remember to take my drops I feel better, though. My father likes to joke that I’m allergic to Pesach cleaning, which in a way, I am!
Two of my brothers also turned out to be allergic to dust. But they get even more exciting symptoms. They both get asthma when their allergies are triggered, which means they wheeze and can’t breathe well and need special medications to help open their airways.
One time, we moved into a new house on Taanis Esther. There was lots and lots and lots of dust, and my little brother had a tremendous asthma attack. My mother took him to the doctor because he was coughing and wheezing nonstop. She thought we’d just need to give him his asthma meds, but the doctor said he needed to go to the emergency room! My mother asked if it could wait until after Purim. The doctor said, “No, he’s in danger, you have to go now!”
Baruch Hashem, they were able to come home Purim morning, loaded with meds for the asthma and for the allergies.
When I was 11, my mother asked me if I’d be interested in trying a treatment for my allergies. I asked her what the treatment was. “Injections,” she said. I looked at her warily. “How many?” I asked. “In the beginning, weekly,” my mother replied. “Eventually, less often.” Then she said, “For three to five years.”
I decided to skip it. Between my handy tissues and antihistamines, I was doing okay. My mother looked relieved when I said I’d pass. Then she told me that the doctor had said it’s not even for sure a lifelong cure, that symptoms could return after a few years.
We looked at each other and laughed. “Forget it,” I said.
“Not worth it,” my mother agreed.
“Anyway,” I said to my mother with a wink, “How will I get out of Pesach cleaning then?”
My mother laughed out loud, even though it was just a joke. I help out plenty, either by sneezing my merry way along or by taking my drops or pills, and my mother knew I was joking.
So next time someone tells you they’re allergic to something strange, believe them. I even know a girl in my community who’s allergic to sunlight! For real — she breaks out in horrible, scary rashes any time she’s in the sun, and spends most of the summer in Switzerland. That’s all I’m going to say, though; you’ll have to wait for her to be interviewed in True Colors to hear her story!
So next time someone tells you they’re allergic to something strange, believe them
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 933)
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