Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Allergic, or What?

            I love reading about science – almost more than I love reading science. I’m totally addicted to the Science Times, a section of The New York Times that is included in the Tuesday paper. It’s here that I’ve learned about hyponatremia, particle accelerators, and newly discovered dinosaur species. I’ve stumbled across some fairly esoteric and/or counterintuitive things too: preliminary studies suggesting that bone loss is tied to the consumption of whole grains; a story that traumatic events can cause genetic alterations which are transmitted through at least 2 generations; news that marathon runners should not drink water constantly.
Poison Ivy. Most people ARE allergic to this. But it is not a food.

            One of today’s stories gets added to the controversial list.

            Jane Brody, a regular contributor to Science Times, writes that it is time for anyone who’s been diagnosed with a food allergy to evaluate and perhaps question their diagnosis. (Here’s a link to the story: CLICK)

           Ms. Brody’s reporting follows up on some news that came out last spring, which was that medical professionals acknowledge that most (that is, more than 50%) of allergy diagnoses are wrong.

            This is the sort of story a person in my position should arguably not be disseminating. I could make the argument that if people think they have a “wheat allergy", they’ll buy gluten-free products, which will benefit me in the long run.

            However, I’m not interested in selling bread on false pretenses. I want people to buy my product because it tastes good – period. Also, I’d rather do my part to dispel bad information. There are far too many lies, distortions and misunderstandings about health in this world. If we really want to be healthy, we need truth.

            One of the factors getting in the way of truth – and this is something Ms. Brody touches upon only briefly – is self-diagnosis.

            This is a bit of medical malpractice that many – myself included – indulge. Sometimes we luck out, as when I decided gluten was making me sick and stopped eating all products containing it. (It didn’t take too much reflection for me to see that an official diagnosis might come in handy, so I did get my celiac disease confirmed by serologic testing). But there are lots of ways to misdiagnose, as I discovered to my own hazard.

            I spend a lot of time outdoors, particularly during mushroom season (May – November). These months coincide with tick season, so I get bit several times a summer. Thus, when I came down with a fever in July 2007, it was (to me) logical to tell my Doctor, “I think I got bit by a tick.”
Tick. Lovely, eh?

            Smart man, he didn’t trust me entirely. He did give me a prescription for the drug used to treat Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but took a blood test before sending me home.

            Later that night after taking a first dose of the antibiotics, I began shaking. Soon I was near convulsions and my fever approached 102 F. Just as my wife was saying I should maybe consider going to an ER, my doctor called. My blood counts had crashed, he told my wife, get me to the hospital, I was going septic.

            Two days in the ICU and two more on a medical floor, and the infectious disease team was still going through blood test after blood test, looking for the rare tick-borne illness. It was a cagey young GI resident who suggested the problem might be asymptomatic gall bladder disease – a diagnosis later confirmed by an MRI. No ticks were involved. Just a patient who thought he knew his body better than his doctor did.

            The person who misdiagnoses their own allergy might be luckier than I, but then maybe not. For example, plenty of life-saving information can be obtained from medical imaging procedures that use iodine-containing contrast media. Assuming that the nausea experienced after a shrimp dinner translates into an iodine allergy is a common mistake. It could cost a life.

            On the other hand, who would want to give up the health and taste benefits of peanuts, eggs, milk, sugar – such wonderful foods! – if they didn’t have to? So, if you are one of those unfortunates suffering food allergies, you should give the Jane Brody column a read. Then drop me a line when you’re ready to go out for some peanut butter and chocolate ice cream. This time the treat will be on me.

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