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The Effects of a Virus upon Allergic Conditions

by Jennifer Worth(more info)

listed in allergies, originally published in issue 109 - March 2005

Shortly after New Year's Day 2004 I caught a cold which developed into bronchitis. I am asthmatic and accustomed to winter bronchitis and from long experience, I know how to treat the condition. After a couple of weeks of bed rest, warmth, inhalations, good food and a high fluid intake, the bronchitis cleared. Although I felt a bit weak, I thought I would soon get my strength back. But I didn't. Day followed day, and week followed week, and my strength seemed to be ebbing away. Something strange was happening in my body – there was no bronchitis, no asthma, but day by day I was feeling worse.

It was hard to pin down what was wrong – the doctor asked me to explain, but I couldn't. I could only say that I felt ill all the time, a sort of dragging illness, something like flu, but not really flu. I had a continuous mild headache, low down around the occipital bone, stiffness in the back of my neck and shoulders and shooting pains in the ears. My body temperature was erratic, sometimes very high, sometimes shivering; for three months I had alarming night sweats from which I awoke covered in perspiration. All my muscles were very weak; this even affected my eyes, making reading difficult because my eyes could not focus on print. Sometimes I felt dizzy, sometimes I had pins and needles all over, at other times trembling. Bladder problems emerged, at first resembling cystitis, but it wasn't really cystitis, it was water retention, and my weight went up considerably, only to drop again when the spasms passed. Sleep became a problem and although I was dropping with fatigue and weariness, sleep eluded me. I just lay in bed, hour after hour, listening to music, and thanking God for Radio 3.

With all this I was not so ill that I could not do anything. But I had to pace myself carefully. I knew that if I rested I would enjoy about an hour or two of energy. After that I would have to lie down again for three or four hours. Each day I came downstairs and cooked a meal; mainly because I enjoy cooking (my husband did all the shopping). But sometimes I was too weak to lift a saucepan. Although physically I was as weak as a kitten and felt ill all the time, my mental energy was in no way diminished. During this period I wrote eight chapters of my next book. I did this by limiting myself to one hour of writing, whilst energy and eyesight lasted, and then retiring to bed for several hours, during which time I planned the next section. When I could not sleep at night, writing was the answer. In this way I wrote about 40,000 words, which is not bad going by any standards.

Some days were better than others, and if I had two or three good days consecutively, I began to rejoice that the illness was going away at last. But always it came back.

My doctor told me that it was a viral infection of particular intensity, and that there is no medical treatment available to combat a virus. Only my body strength and immune system would overcome it. A blood test was taken, but the pathology report showed there to be nothing wrong. I took all sorts of vitamin and mineral and herbal remedies in the hope of strengthening my immune system; I had a course of acupuncture for the same purpose, but with no effect. We had booked a fortnight in the Canary Islands thinking the warmth and sunshine would cure me, but we never went; I was too ill to travel. I was programmed to sing in Barcelona in March, but had to cancel. January, February and March passed with no improvement. I felt I would never get well.

Virus and Allergies

One day I rang my niece, who is an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist. We discussed many possible causes of my illness. Then she suddenly said, "you know, Auntie Jenny, you have been very ill in the past with food allergy. Could it be that again? Remember, allergies never go away. Perhaps your body cannot cope with a viral infection and an allergic condition at the same time. Perhaps you should go back on your elimination diet again."

Why on earth had I not thought of it before? It was blindingly obvious, and yet I had not seen it! Ten years ago I was covered in eczema from head to foot, and found the cause to be food allergy. With the help of the right doctor I cured the eczema with an elimination diet, but I was left with practically nothing I could eat! Since then I have had a course of Enzyme Potentiated Desensitization (EPD) which enabled me to tolerate all foods, with no return of the eczema. Had the intolerance come back, provoked by a virus? Had the symptoms changed from asthma and eczema to general malaise? Could food allergy mimic a viral infection?

I put myself onto an elimination diet which I know from past experience has to be very severe to be effective. Everything has to be eliminated (yes, everything) except meat and water. Within three days I began to feel better, and after three weeks I was completely recovered – no pains, or stiffness, no headache, no temperature, no night sweats, no tiredness, and I recovered full vitality. In April I was singing in the Royal Albert Hall, which included choral rehearsal 12-2 pm, orchestral rehearsal 3-5pm, and full performance 7.30-10 pm. You have to be in peak form for such a schedule as that! I remember sitting in the Green Room between rehearsals, eating my box of mixed meats and drinking water, which everyone thought was very odd, and thinking "I'm better! I have never been so happy in my life!"

Elimination Diet

To achieve such a spectacular cure was only possible because I know from experience how to conduct an elimination diet and, more importantly, how to conduct one on myself. Everything has to be eliminated at once, there can be no compromise, no little bits of this and that, no "just a taste" of something you fancy. Strict discipline is needed. They say you have to be desperate to go on an elimination diet. Well, I was desperate. After three months of illness I was at the end of my tether. A meat and water diet was a small price to pay for full health. However, my peculiar diet should not be taken as a directive. We are all different, and every allergic person will have different sensitivities. Professional guidance is needed for the successful conduct of an elimination diet. Such help is not easy to find, but Action Against Allergy (AAA) and the National Society for Research into Allergy (NSRA) have a list of doctors and practitioners in the country who are qualified and experienced.

After several weeks of full health I decided it was time to start re-introducing foods. This has to be done very carefully, with a small amount of one new food each day to challenge the immune system and to test the reaction. One has to be very cautious, because after a period of abstinence, the body is hyper-sensitive and can react violently to the introduction of an allergen.

I started re-introducing foods with great caution, following all the rules, but with total failure. Everything that I tasted – cereal grains, yoghurt, cheese, rice, coffee, fruits, vegetables, juices – provoked a return of the symptoms and put me back into bed again with severe headache, general fatigue, muscular weakness and a vague, indefinable feeling of flu.

Fish was a disaster. I had never before been sensitive to fish, but after a small portion I passed out. It would have been dramatic if an audience had been present. After only one mouthful I felt intense heat and dizziness and nausea flooding my body. "I am going to faint. I must go to bed" I thought, and staggered into the hallway, clinging to the banisters. The next thing I knew, I found myself lying full length on the stairs with my head on the carpet. I managed to crawl, on hands and knees, upstairs to bed and slept for about four hours. After that experience I decided firmly against the re-introduction of foods. I ate only meat and water for several weeks and remained completely well.

Enzyme Potentiated Desensitization

I have mentioned that ten years ago when I cured my eczema with an elimination diet, this was followed by a course of Enzyme Potentiated Desensitization (EPD) to treat the underlying food allergy. This has been completely successful, and for about six or seven years I have been eating a full diet with no ill effects. A short paper like this is not the place to go into details about immunotherapy, desensitization, and neutralization, but in my book Eczema and Food Allergy (available from www.allerbuys.com) three detailed chapters can be studied on these important subjects.

I made an appointment to see Dr L McEwen, one of the leading allergy specialists in the country, who discovered and developed EPD in the 1960s, and which is now used worldwide, though not available on the NHS.

Dr McEwen listened to my account of the illness and the length of time involved, and told me that the symptoms were typical of the early stages of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), triggered by a viral infection. He told me that the underlying allergic condition in my body had shifted its focus from asthma and eczema to the more widespread state of general malaise, resembling perpetual influenza. He said that everyone had assumed that I was run down after the initial bronchitis, and could not seem to pick up again. Dr McEwen said that it was a very good thing that I had discovered the cause and put myself onto an elimination diet at an early stage, because the longer the illness goes on, the more difficult it is to treat.

I had a dose of EPD on that day with instructions to continue the meat only diet for three more days, and then to start re-introduction over a three week period, after which to start a full and varied diet. I did this, with no remissions.

I am very, very fortunate in having averted one of the nastiest diseases – ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, as it is sometimes called. I was able to do so for three reasons: firstly the possibility of food allergy was suggested to me by my niece; secondly, I knew how to conduct an elimination diet; and thirdly, I knew where to go for desensitization.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or ME is a condition little understood by doctors and is often regarded as neurosis or hypochondria. It is widely accepted by the medical profession that a viral infection can sometimes herald the start of long term fatigue and lassitude in some people; but doctors have no answer to the question 'why?'

There is no simple answer, although modern lifestyle has much to answer for in creating a fundamentally unhealthy environment in which we, and all mammalian and amphibian life, struggle to exist. Allergic reactions are mounting everywhere to epidemic proportions. They seldom kill, but they stunt and maim, and can make life intolerable. I do not pretend to know everything about this immense subject, but I do seriously advise any reader who has had a viral infection followed by chronic fatigue and a trail of minor illnesses to consider an underlying allergic condition as being at the root of it all. Food intolerance and chemical sensitivity are the most likely culprits, and you need expert help from an allergy specialist. Your local GP will not be able to refer you to one, but the two charities AAA and NSRA can help and advise.

Further Information

Action Against Allergy, PO Box 278, Twickenham TW1 4QQ; Tel: 020-8892 4949; AAA@actionagainstallergy.freeserve.co.uk
National Society for Research into Allergy, PO Box 45, Hinkley, Leics. LE10 1JY. Tel: 01455 250715; nsra.allergy@virgin.net

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About Jennifer Worth

Jennifer Worth SRN, SCM, is a retired nurse and midwife. She is author of Eczema and Food Allergy (Merton Books, 1997) and writes extensively about allergic diseases. Her book Call the Midwife will be published by Merton Books in March 2002. She can be contacted via philip@whitehousestudio.fsnet.co.uk

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