People often complain that this blog has nothing to do with its own name. I spend all my time blogging about videogames, when the title clearly indicates this is a site dedicated to
tabletop games explaining esoteric health problems. So let’s correct that…
A lot of people – possibly even most people – don’t understand how pet allergies work. Which I understand. I don’t always understand the challenges faced by diabetics, people with depression, arthritis, or other semi-common problems people are afflicted with. The world is big and complex and you can’t know everything. If someone doesn’t understand my odd problems, I don’t get offended. But sometimes people ask me questions and are baffled by my answers and my behavior. So for the curious and the critical, here is a thousand or so words on pet allergies.
Pet allergies aren’t usually a serious health concern on their own. But I have pet allergies with acute asthma, which is a hazardous combination. If I am exposed to something I’m allergic to, then my body incorrectly identifies this foreign material as a serious threat. The body responds by causing a bunch of swelling. It’s this swelling, and not the contaminants, that cause the danger.
This is of course, just a malfunction of one small part of our immune system, a thing so complex I’m shocked that the dang thing works at all.
If someone with peanut allergies is exposed to their allergen, their throat swells until it restricts their ability to breathe. It’s a similar idea here. On the plus side, my swelling isn’t nearly as extreme or as rapid. On the downside, it happens deep in the lungs, where you really don’t want swellingGiven the choice, I think my ailment is less scary. The speed of peanut allergies is breathtaking. Er. You know what I mean..
If my body was calibrated properly it would just ignore this foreign crap, or maybe produce some mucus and sneeze it outActually, it also does that, too.. But instead my asthma becomes inflamed, which makes the airways of the lungs swell, which can be anything from inconvenient to fatal depending on the severity of the condition and severity of exposure. My allergies react to some animals more strongly than others, and the effects become more extreme with prolonged exposure.
People find it really strange that being around something as innocuous as a puppy can kill meFun fact: The header image of this post is actually the first and last time I ever played with a puppy. Twenty minutes after that picture was taken, I was on the way to the hospital.. They don’t understand how it works, but they sort of default to thinking of it this way:
They think the dog sort of radiates asthma-waves, and if they put the dog in the other room, or put it outside, then Shamus should be fine, right?
Well, no. That’s actually completely unhelpful. The other assumption is this:
They’ve heard that allergies come from dust, and so they assume that we’re dealing with a cleanliness problem. This model is more correct, but usually leads to more misunderstanding. When I try to explain that vacuuming won’t help, people take offense. They think I’m saying they’re slobs with poor housekeeping.
But how it actually works is this:
Allergies are indeed caused by dust. But it’s not the dust you see on your window sill that’s the problem. You’re constantly sloughing off skin in the form of microscopic flakes that end up in the air. So is your adorable pet. Dust is all around you, all the time. Most of it is too small to see. If you left your home right now and took all your pets and house-mates with you and then returned in a week, then when you got back the furniture would have a fresh layer of settled dust. That future dust? It’s suspended in the air you’re breathing right now.
It takes ages for dust to leave the air. Let’s say that after you return you dust the house again, taking extreme care to avoid knocking the dust back into the air. (You’ll probably need to use a lot of water.) If you leave and come back in another week, there will still be more settled dust.
The dust is everywhere. It’s inside your vents, and will get pumped into the air when the furnace or air conditioning kicks on. It’s deep in your carpets, so that it’s kicked into the air with every footstep. It’s deep it the cushions of your living room furniture, so that big clouds of the stuff are released when you sit down. It’s in your clothing, your bedding, your drapes, your hair, your stuffed animals, and your towels.
This is why the “Don’t worry Shamus, I’ll make sure to clean before you come over!” mindset is actually kind of dangerous. We tend to judge the “cleanliness” of a home based on how much lint is on the carpet and how much dust is on the mantle. We’re gauging by visible dirt. But the mostly-invisible dust embedded in the carpet and resting on the furniture isn’t a threat to me. When you clean, a lot of it gets kicked back into the air. So cleaning your house actually makes it a lot more dangerous for a time. You’re removing the visible dirt from the floor and adding tons of invisible allergens to the air.
If I have to go into a house, the best way to make things less dangerous is to bring in as much outside air as possible, as quickly as possible. My usual advice is to put a fan in every window of the room I’ll be in and aim it inwardThis is what we did towards the end in our previous apartment.. Leave the doors open. I try to sit on wooden furniture when I visit, since I don’t want to get too much dust in my clothing. (Even if I don’t breathe it in, it’s still itchy as hell on my skin.) Damp weather is better, since humidity is good for making the dust a little heavy, which makes it more likely to stay out of the air.
Some people explain that their pets are “outside pets”. In which case your house is more like this:
You walk your dog. You pet your dog. Your dog rubs against you and your clothing. Over time, that dander builds up in the house. It’s less severe, but I still have to be careful and I’m not going to want to stay long.
The final misunderstanding is that after I explain how dangerous my condition is and how careful I have to be, people are somewhat put off if I show up and don’t immediately begin asphyxiating. When I don’t immediately get sick they assume I’m a big baby or a hypochondriac.
Allergies don’t always attack aggressively and visibly. I can actually hang out in an “outside pets” kind of house for a couple of hoursI actually did this for years when I’d visit my parents for the family Christmas party. with no outward symptoms. Then I go home, shower, and put on clean clothes. And then sometime later the serious wheezing will start.
This is an immune system problem, and the immune system is an outlandish, fiendishly complex contraption. For me, the effects can continue building for hours after I escape exposure, and the effects can linger for a couple of days. This can probably be blamed on the time-delay properties of the immune system. It’s not like the rampaging defensive cells know to switch off the moment I hit the shower. They continue to do their thing until the cells run out of energy, or some other kind of cell is activated to tell them to knock it off. That takes time, and in the meantime I’ve got wheezing, sneezing, headaches, and general foggy-brained fatigue to deal with.
It’s a strange ailment to have, simply because it’s hard to understand and it runs against standard intuition and assumptions.
But that’s what it’s like. I’m sure your pet is really nice, I’m sure it barely sheds, and no doubt you’re a wonderful housekeeper. But I really can’t visit. Sorry.
 Given the choice, I think my ailment is less scary. The speed of peanut allergies is breathtaking. Er. You know what I mean.
 Actually, it also does that, too.
 Fun fact: The header image of this post is actually the first and last time I ever played with a puppy. Twenty minutes after that picture was taken, I was on the way to the hospital.
 This is what we did towards the end in our previous apartment.
 I actually did this for years when I’d visit my parents for the family Christmas party.
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