A woman in detective clothing holds up a magnifying glass featuring a wine bottle and glasses of wine.

Becoming My Own Investigator

It’s amazing how many things are connected with our bodies, and what we put in or on them. A few years ago, when I allowed myself to gain some weight before hip replacement surgeries, I developed high blood pressure. The first medication I was given caused an extreme allergic reaction to my poor eczema-prone skin. But this was the first time in memory it affected my face.

Eczema on my face

Fast forward a few years, two new hips, no excess weight, no high blood pressure. In the meantime, I was now having occasional eczema flares on my face although definitely not as bad as that first outbreak.

The itchiest, flakiest, and bloodiest eczema flare

Then a new kind of reaction began. The first was with a glass of red wine at a friend’s retirement party. One sip and my nose started to tingle, then my eyes, then over the next few days the eczema around my mouth and nose became the itchiest, flakiest, and bloodiest it had ever been. I assumed a wine allergy had begun.

Over the next few months, more and more things started causing the same symptoms. First the tingling, then the itch, then the eczema outbreak. There seemed to be no commonality I could find.

Looking for an allergen

I started a food journal, recording every bite and sip that passed my lips, listing every reaction, and getting more frustrated every day. When I thought I had enough information, I made an appointment with my wonderful allergist. Armed with my food journal and pictures of my distressed face, we started the investigation. She looked through the journal and pictures, then informed me this was a typical sulphite sensitivity. I later discovered she had the same sensitivity.

What are sulfites?

Sulphites (sulfites) are preservatives added to food and drinks to extend shelf life or preserve colour. The term “sulphites” is a general term for a group of chemicals including sulphur (sulfur) dioxide and sodium or potassium metabisulphite, among others. They do occur naturally in a very few foods, such as grapes, or during the preparation of some foods.

Can you be allergic to sulfites?

Sulphites don’t cause a true allergy, therefore there’s no testing available. But more importantly, it means antihistamines have no impact on a sulphite reaction. Those with asthma are more at risk of sulphite sensitivity, which could induce wheezing or chest tightness.

Hidden sulfites

If I’m already undergoing a flare-up, smaller amounts of sulphites will cause a larger reaction. I also found if an ingredient contains sulphites before it is put into something you buy, it doesn’t need to be on the label. As an example, sun-dried tomato salad dressing doesn’t list sulphites as an ingredient, but the sun-dried tomatoes in it do have sulphites. I found this out the hard way!

Becoming a personal investigator

Those of us with a sulphite sensitivity need to become our own personal investigator. Even most of the innocuous onion soup mixes we all know and use are now off the table. Most packaged and powdered food, dried fruits, processed meats, even some pickles! At least now many of the companies making frozen potatoes are beginning to switch to sodium phosphate to preserve the colour instead of sulphites. But I still ask at a restaurant if they’re using frozen potatoes.

Looking at food labels

Most restaurants that have an allergy menu now include sulphites on that list. But there are not many restaurants that even have an allergy menu. If you’re having an unexplained flare-up of your eczema or atopic dermatitis, and antihistamines are not helping, have a look at your food labels. Let us know what you discover.

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