Meet my friend Emer. She keeps me, and everyone that knows her, entertained with her dry, witty and very honest humor. I wasn’t aware of all the skin conditions and allergies she’s suffered with over the years until she came forward on my FB page after reading that my son had been going through some similar things as well. I’m thrilled that she was interested in sharing her story. She went through a lot as an, but you’d never know it. We worry about our children dealing with various health conditions, but they are strong, resilient and will persevere. Emer is proof. She is beautiful, smart, creative, and loads of fun!
It’s my body’s largest organ which makes up for a whopping 16% of my body weight. It is not specific to one location, like a headache. Skin is all over, as are the conditions that affect it and me throughout my life.
I cannot claim that they have been deathly serious but when you are in your own skin and something (in my case many things) is going wrong with it nothing can compare with the misery and distress of being trapped in what can only be described as an itchy cage.
I never really had any problems or major allergies as a child. I pretty much ate everything that was put in front of me. My older sister was the one who had an egg allergy and refused to eat mushrooms because they looked like slugs. I had all the usual ‘kiddie conditions’ such as chicken-pox, but nothing out of the ordinary or brought about by any apparent intolerance to food or environment.
When I turned six, my family moved to Israel and I adjusted to the climate and food much easier than my blonde, fair sister who was left with appalling blisters and burns after even short exposure to the Middle Eastern sun. I tanned like a native, so much so that people used to wonder how I could possibly be the offspring of my, also fair, blonde mother. After two years we moved back to Ireland to a fairly rural area surrounded by farms and livestock. It was at about this time that my system began to object.
It started out with hay fever. This could be attributed to me having lived in a scorching hot, city environment for the two years previous and my body simply not being able to process ‘countryside’. It started as mild sniffles, progressed to fairly disgusting snottiness, and then graduated to what I can only describe as ‘galloping’. Summer and autumn were the worst. I woke each day with my swollen eyes fused shut and my head completely stuffed. I remember going for a walk with my cousins and having to be led home for two miles with my eyes shut because opening them was just too uncomfortable.
When I hit puberty, the skin problems began. I developed eczema on my neck, under my arms, on my arms, all over my stomach and behind my knees: all the text-book locations where the skin folds. I was prescribed hydrocortisone creams, baths with a handful of Silcox base mixed with water; and I was also taking antihistamines and using eye drops about twenty times a day.
We had moved to a new house even further out in the country. During the late summer months when the combine harvesters were in the next field going gung-ho and throwing out all kinds of pollen, I was in hell. I was allergic to the barley, which not only made breathing difficult but also brought me out in small itchy, red bumps on my wrists and ankles if I came into contact with it.
I remember begging my mother to move us into the nearest town because I was in such discomfort. She would try to assure me that there would be a rain shower soon (after all, this WAS Ireland) and that it would take all the pollen out of the air. It was a case of stay indoors with the windows and doors shut, popping Zirtek tablets like a snotty junkie.
I am not sure which came next: the metal allergy or the food allergy. I think it was the metal allergy. This was uncovered largely due the insane amount of tat jewellery that one tends to collect as a teen. I would buy cheap necklaces and rings with my pocket-money, like every young girl does. The most outstanding memory that I have of this is buying a pair of earrings and wearing them to a disco. The following day my ear lobes, the back of my ears and my neck, all the way down to my collarbone on each side, were covered in an angry red rash. After further irritation due to scratching, the skin broke and the entire area looked like a scraped pizza.
On a trip to visit to my relatives in Northern Ireland, my cousin Jarlath gave me a ring that my father had acquired in Egypt and given to him. My father died when I was two years old so there was a great deal of gravitas attached to Jarlath presenting me with this ring. I had it for one day and the finger on which I had worn it swelled up like an overstuffed sausage. The culprit was identified as nickel, to which I am HIGHLY allergic to this day. Contrary to popular belief, I am not being high maintenance when I insist on only gold and silver jewellery.
It was my first time meeting Jarlath, and it was also when I discovered that he had quite a severe case of psoriasis. I remember looking at his poor raw, patchy, flaking arms and realising that, in the greater scheme of skin conditions that run in my family, I got off quite lightly.
Next came the food and animal allergies. Strawberries and tomatoes brought me out in hives. Dairy foods, particularly milk and yogurt, made my hay fever ten times worse, as dairy is mucus-forming (gross, I know). Milk chocolate started to give me a burning sensation in my mouth and throat.
I had to try to avoid all of these, particularly during the summer months when everything would hit at once. Around this time, an allergy to horses also surfaced. I was working in stables and being around them brought on mild asthma-type symptoms.
In 1995, about two months before my Leaving Cert (final high school exams), my skin conditions all joined forces and launched what felt like a premeditated attack.
It started out as a small red, itchy bump on my back which was really quite painful, but which I attributed to an allergy to the metal in the catch on my bra strap. It then however started to spread and grew to the size of a dinner plate around my ribs. Raising my arms over my head was so painful, and I had no idea what was going on.
I then got severer-than-usual eczema in all the usual places, except this time the skin broke and bled. On top of that, I developed tiny but very concentrated and hellishly itchy head-to-toe bumps.
I was a dermatological ground zero! As a seventeen-year-old girl, this was very distressing as the outward appearance of being rash-tastic coupled with the intense and constant itching made me feel like I should be handed a bell and shipped off to a colony.
My GP diagnosed shingles on my back, severe eczema where the skin had broken and a full-body stress rash, all due to the pending stress of my exams. She prescribed me Zovirax (ten tubes) for the shingles, hydrocortisone steroid cream (two tubes) for the eczema and an anti-inflammatory for the stress rash. I remember her being quite nervous about giving hydrocortisone to a shingles case, lest I mix it up with the Zovirax. Apparently steroid cream is like Miracle-Gro to shingles.
This was the worst I ever remember it being, but it identified a massive trigger for me, which is stress. If I get anxious or stressed, the first outward sign is a rash or skin condition of some description, and I had never before made this connection. I remember my school principal and home economics teacher both looking at me with such pity after the diagnosis had been made and probably also wondering if they needed to don haz-mat suits.
In 2002, I moved to Japan and, due to the stress of moving, the anxiety of this completely alien environment, not having a freaking clue how to speak the language and the outrageous humidity, my skin once again went to hell. Over time I developed folliculitis, mainly on my legs, which had always been bumpy.
I managed all of this with hydrocortisone cream (shipped from Ireland) and developed a routine, mostly involving bill-busting air conditioning and Vaseline gauze to keep things under control. My legs however remained under wraps for a number of years and heart attacks ensued when in 2009 I was asked to be bridesmaid in Hawaii and wear a knee-length dress!
When I moved back to London I decided to take the bull by the horns and address the folliculitis issue by getting laser and IPL hair removal. My doctor told me that it was really the only thing that was going to work, as pretty much every hair on my shins was trapped under the skin.
I found some brilliant deals (thank you Groupon) and signed up for six sessions of laser treatment on my shins. Quelle surprise, I developed an allergy. My therapist told me that the laser literally incinerates the hair under the skin to the follicle and leaves an ash residue which disappears over time. My system wholesale rejected the ‘foreign body’ ash in each of my follicles and my folliculitis went nuclear. Due to the stress of this and the utterly horrifying state of my shins, I got a stress rash in the form of massive red, itchy bumps all over my stomach, neck and ears – and cried like a baby to my boyfriend in the US over Skype.
Over time it all calmed down and I was left with no scars, thank goodness. The laser treatment has made a huge difference to my shins, although I still get flare-ups every now and then.
I don’t have any experience of early childhood eczema. I hypothesize that it is actually worse for the person watching than it is for the child, as they will hopefully not remember the itching. I can barely remember it and I was a teen.
I was told that I would grow out of hay fever, which I highly doubted as it appears that I grew into it! I can attest that it is a great deal better, as are all my allergies (although leaving my house without a tube of hydrocortisone cream, eye drops and a packet of Kleenex is unthinkable). I go to the gym and work out to alleviate any stress, and I feel like I am for the most part on top of it. However, now and again, when summer creeps around and if stress levels creep up, it can be An Itchy Big World.