Friday, September 30, 2011

Where Are the Allergies in Fiction?

Allergies are greatly underrepresented in fiction.

On one hand, I can understand why. Many folks don't have any allergies and therefore know little about them. (I'll distinguish contact allergy, allergy, and intolerance in a minute, but right now I'm referring to all three. And if biology talk makes you queasy, you should probably stop reading, now.)

On the other hand, allergies add another layer of realism and potential conflict to a story. In the rare event that you do see an allergy in a story, it's either a fantasy creature's sensitivity (like silver burning werewolves), or full-blown anaphylaxis (windpipe closing up) from sesame seeds or peanuts. But people can be allergic to anything, and there are many different types of allergies and reactions—and then there are intolerances and contact allergies, which are entirely different ball games but can be just as problematic.

Many folks can be excused for not thinking of this topic, but not me. I had friends and family with severe allergies long before I developed any of my own.

I first started developing allergies about 7 years ago, with a stressful… situation… that essentially shut down the portion of my adrenal gland that protects against the development of allergies. My adrenal gland still isn't functioning right, and as a result, I have a huge list of allergens (things I react to).

An Incomplete List of What Misti Reacts to:

  • grass
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • mold
  • stevia (the natural sweetener)
  • strawberries
  • tea tree oil
  • nitrile (the common latex-free gloves)
  • rice
  • eggs
  • almonds

And yes, that's an incomplete list. Some of those are allergies, some are contact allergies, and some are intolerances.

Some things, like antibacterial soap and spring flowers, always gave me a hint of trouble. There's one soap in particular that's always made my skin itch. Spring flowers always made my nose itch to sniff them. Now, even minor exposure to one of them causes cracking skin or full-body itching.

The thing is, those are my skin reacting, not my immune system, so those aren't "allergies" in the "Call the allergist!" sense. "Contact allergy" is a good way to describe those; my reaction happens upon contact—but even a contact allergy can be serious. I can't even be in the same room as strawberries without the traces in the air irritating the interior of my windpipe, which makes breathing uncomfortable, even painful. It isn't anaphylaxis, because my windpipe doesn't actually swell (or at least the allergist told me it doesn't). But it still interferes with my breathing, and the reaction won't go away without antihistamine help.

If I touch tea tree oil, my skin peels off—but tea tree oil is a fantastic antibacterial and antifungal, even better than vinegar. My mom sometimes uses it for disinfectant. I live with my parents. You can imagine that I'm very careful with spray bottles that have homemade contents. Usually, they're vinegar. But sometimes… (Oh, and castor oil causes the same thing for her, so I have to be careful about the special antibiotic-free soaps I buy.)

Allergists enter the picture for what could be called "true" allergies, when your immune system attacks the allergen in your system. Such allergies usually get worse upon repeated exposure, though it's possible in some cases to retrain your immune system to accept the allergen. That's the premise behind allergy shots: load up the allergy sufferer with antihistamines and trace amounts of the thing they react to; the antihistamine will keep the person from reacting (much) to the allergen, teaching the immune system that the allergen is okay.

But allergies aren't something to take lightly, even when your reaction's mild. If you ignore the allergy, it might go away, but it's far more likely to get worse. Reactions can include itchy skin, hives, swelling, dizziness, headaches, seizures—as well as other weird things you wouldn't expect. I used to know a girl whose brain swelled upon exposure to her allergens, which was murder on her equilibrium, among other things.

That brings us to intolerances, things that the body can't process properly. These will build up in your system and get worse if you keep eating/touching/encountering them, but once the thing you react to is out of your system, you'll be back to normal. Your reaction won't be any worse if you react to it, recover, then react to the same amount of it again.

Often, an intolerance causes pain that's resolved by expulsion (vomiting and/or the runs), though sometimes it's just pain. (Imagine sharp stones are bouncing around in your stomach whenever you move. That's how I feel for a full day after eating a mouthful of rice; day 2 is a severe but tolerable stomachache; day 3 is back to normal.) But intolerances can also cause reactions like arthritic symptoms and general fatigue.

As an added bonus that an author can play with, there are also psychosomatic allergies. These happen when someone's so afraid of something that they'll react when they expect to, say if they taste it (even if that taste is imitation) or see it (without realizing that it's fake).

I've been accused of being psychosomatic, but there are two problems with that theory.

  1. I react even when I don't know my allergens are present. If I were psychosomatic, I'd see the item, then react, not start reacting and have to wonder what on earth is going on.
  2. I don't react to artificial versions even when I've tasted the flavor and am worrying about allergen exposure. If I were psychosomatic, I'd react even to artificial and imitation versions. I eat strawberry Twizzlers just fine.

See? I have no excuse for not writing characters with allergies. I know so much about them. I pop homeopathic antihistamine pills up to 6 times a day. *takes one* (This stuff works great, by the way. Conventional antihistamines suck; they only last me a week, tops, before they stop working.)

I was musing on this earlier this year, trying to figure out where to fit the different types of reactions into my stories. I realized…

I'd written a character with a food sensitivity into Destiny's Kiss without even realizing it. The character has hints of the allergy in the book, if you're familiar with the particular sensitivity s/he has.

No. I'm not telling you who it is; that would spoil the fun. I will say that it isn't the narrator, and it's looking like she won't discover that this character's an allergy sufferer until book 3.

But I'm also concentrating, now, and making sure I consider my characters' allergies, contact allergies, and intolerances when I write. There's so much untapped room for allergy conflict outside of the "Oh, noes! Hero's throat swells shut from one of the most common allergies! How original!" I look forward to exploring it.

Who's your favorite character with an intolerance or allergy? Have you written characters with intolerances or allergies?


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