It’s spring in beautiful downtown San Miguel, when a young man’s fancy turns to many things, especially sneezing. I am no longer a young man but I have what’s known as the trifecta of histamines racing through my body at various times of the year: allergies, asthma, and atopic dermatitis. Put another way, if I were a three-headed creature from the Greek underworld made by Disney, I’d been known as Sneezy, Wheezy, and Scratchy.
Since moving to the middle of Mexico, my wife, Arlene, has seen her allergies explode. Every March, when the drop-dead gorgeous jacaranda trees are in bloom, she sneezes with wild abandon. I imagine one could sneeze with mild abandon but I have yet to see it. Thus, our house in San Miguel, a city known for its flowers, has become a flower-free zone. For two months every year, we shake our fists and curse the blooming jacarandas.
According to at least one common theory, allergies are a dated flaw in the design of the human body. When the body’s immune system detects a mostly harmless allergen as life-threatening, some mechanism in charge somewhere deep inside the body shouts, “Release the Histamines” and that’s when the fun starts. Cue the sneezing, wheezing, scratching, weepy eyes, many sleepless nights and more than one trip to the local doctor’s office. Different bodies react differently to allergens, however, and the event can prove life-threatening. Allergies, if you pardon the pun and the dust, are not to be sneezed at.
Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. We’re told the best defense is to avoid irritants, yet we’re surrounded by them. Grass. Tree pollen. Weed pollen. Dust mites. Mold. Smoke of any kind. The three poisons: ivy, oak, sumac. Jewelry. Household chemicals. Perfume. Rubber. Nickel. Cotton. Wool. Bees from every nest. Yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps. Just about any other winged thing, not to mention ants representing every mound on earth. Aspirin. Penicillin. Shellfish. Eggs. Milk. Grains. Peanuts. Other nuts, you choose. Berries. Dogs. Cats. Hamsters. Oh, my!
The human body is home to several parts that once served a purpose and are now considered vestigial or mostly useless, like an anatomical lava lamp or selfie stick. Best known among those genetic garage sale hand-me-downs is, of course, the appendix (removed when I was seven) and the coccyx or tailbone (sitting on it now). I think the generous release of histamines by the body’s immune system in reaction to what it perceives as a lethal invasion – but is not – might qualify as something left over from those wild pathogen keggers held during the Paleolithic Age. A key difference is that while an allergic reaction can kill you, mostly what happens when you sit in front of a computer for long periods of time is gain weight. Now that I think about it, sitting too long in the long run in front of a computer can kill you as well. So there we are: we’re screwed either way.
If you have not already guessed, I am not a doctor and this is not a how-to essay on dealing with allergies or about the ontological proof of IgE. In my experience, allergies are like distant cousins. They can appear in your life at any time and surprise you by going away on their own. Here today, gone tomorrow. Or maybe not.
I wanted to discuss the allergy scene in San Miguel, however. But first, I’m going to digress further and present my credentials as someone who has always had to deal with an over-active immune system.
When I was a child with asthma, one of the preferred oral medications for treating an asthma attack was Tedral, a theophylline-based drug. It was so powerful that I could only take one half of a tablet and had to sit or try to lie down while my legs would shake in reaction. Today, if experiencing a flare up of my asthma I might take a corticosteroid, such as Prednisone, for about a week or until my chest returns to normal. Life’s full of tradeoffs, so when I take Prednisone my breathing eases but my cheeks puff up like Rocky the Squirrel and my mood swings back and forth more times than a ping pong ball in Bejing. I’ve had every major treatment for asthma known to allergists and pulmonologists alike, from desensitization shots to steam tents, and occasionally still a tightness reigns in my chest. For reasons unknown to me, my asthma became dormant from about age 20 until I was in my late-30s, when it came back with a vengeance and an I.O.U. It has since shown no signs of leaving anytime soon.
Along with the big wheeze, I suffer from an allergy-induced dry skin condition known as eczema. It’s not quite the heartbreak of psoriasis of Madison Avenue fame but it has its own challenges. As a kid, I had to take sponge baths or, worse still, bathe in starch or oatmeal. Now you might think a starch bath for a kid would be pretty cool and leave him with arms stuck out like Frankenstein groping his way down the hall. But the sad truth is I couldn’t stay in the tub long enough to get a good starch going and it wouldn’t matter anyway because I had to cover my skin in some kind of lubricant (not that kind) once I exited the tub. I could rarely relax because I was constantly scratching. When I lived in Reno, Nevada, my skin, at times, became so parched and caked I could barely move my neck from one side to the other. On the other hand, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, my skin was always moist and darn-near perfect, but the cold, moist weather of the Willamette Valley triggered many an asthma attack. What’s a mere mortal to do?
Besides my weak lungs and sensitive skin, I have hay fever, and a host of irritants. Anything from pet dander to seasonal pollen to a sudden drop in barometric pressure can be enough to launch a sneezing fit. I could go on but we all have our tales of biological woe. Besides, I wanted to tell you about how my histamines are enjoying life in the sunny colonial highlands of Mexico.
The short answer is they’re doing fine, which surprises me because according to an ancient skin-scratch test I took as a kid, a test considered a Rorschach for Allergists, I am especially allergic to dust and dust is San Miguel’s unofficial nickname. Yet even with all the dust, smoke, and unidentified particulate matter floating around here at the six-thousand-foot level, my breathing is the best it has been in years. My skin, too, has improved and only erupts during the very dry months of April and May. Sneezing still happens but infrequently.
In conclusion, your Honor, I submit of all the places I’ve lived, from northern California to northern Oregon, from Nevada to Puerto Rico, the semi-arid mountain town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, has shown to offer the most beneficial climate for the various histamines that haunt me. I rest my case and my inhaler.