Do you sometimes wake up with a headache, pains around your eyes, sinusitis – and haven’t even had a drink?
It just might be your undies (or your partner’s).
Textile Allergens can be inhaled while you sleep – Here’s a case study based on a seemingly harmless item of underwear.
Regular visitors to my blog will know that I am particularly interested in allergies – especially the ones we don’t normally expect. The high level of interest in my article on deadly detergents (check out the link Poison in your Washing Machine: Allergic Contact Dermatitis from Laundry Detergents, Softeners, Conditioners and Whiteners) has alerted me to the fact that many people worry about allergic reactions to clothes or the chemicals in them.
Therefore let me share with you my recent experience involving the classical symptoms of sinusitis. I had these symptoms for about 5 days – including head-aches and pains around the sinuses (cheeks, nose and eyes) and other nauseous feelings that might commonly be associated with a hang-over. Like a hangover the symptoms were worse when I woke up in the morning and my sleep was disturbed.
At around day 3 I presumed I had simply picked up some bug and that the immune cells in my sinuses were leading the battle to neutralise the infection and rid my body of it. The symptoms I experienced were mainly due to localised inflammation as my body mobilised its defences against what I thought was a seasonal pathogen. As it was winter I felt this was a reasonable assumption.
However one thing made me suspicious that my medical diagnosis (sourced mainly from Google) may not be the full story. I did not have a blocked-up or runny nose, chest pains, cough or tickly throat and I was not running a high fever. If a bug had caused my sinusitis I would have expected these kind of symptoms as my body tried to flush the little microbes out of my tubes. Generally cold and flu bugs do not like raised temperatures – that is why our immune systems have evolved the fever response . This puts the microbes at a disadvantage while our white blood cells try to nobble them.
So on day 5 as I awoke with another crashing head-ache (and still not having had any booze) I noticed that the T-shirt I had been wearing in bed smelled of perfume. This was one of the T-shirts I that I had washed in the days when I used to use washing detergents. Blog followers will know that some years ago I stopped using detergents in my washing machine (the link above has the gruesome details that explain this life style change). However, before this change, I used to conscientiously wash my clothes in Persil, hang them up to dry, iron and fold them into nice piles for storage in airtight containers.
Last week I sorted out some ‘fresh’ T-shirts ready to use in bed. As my normal stock was depleted I took a suitable ‘old-stock’ T-shirt out of its airtight container and hung it on a hanger in my bedroom. I didn’t actually wear the T-shirt until 4 days later. This item of clothing had been hanging in my bedroom since precisely the time that my sinusitis symptoms started.
It gradually became clear that I was being poisoned by my T-shirt! On morning 5 I quickly placed the T-shirt into a sealed container ready to be washed. Within an hour or so of removing the culprit all sinusitis symptoms cleared up. No head ache, no aching eyes and I started to smile again.
In recent years I realised that I have an allergy to one or more of the additives used in washing detergents (or softeners). This showed itself through allergic contact dermatitis (Pics of affected body parts in the blog referred to above). Following this realisation I started washing in pure, detergent free, water (from a salt based water softener). This seems to have removed, or at least diluted, whatever I was allergic to and my symptoms disappeared. Water at 60C appeared sufficient to get rid of any nasty bugs or smells and I follow a ‘stain minimisation strategy’ to avoid any unsightly accidents. So I do not wear white shirts when applying dark balsamic vinegar to my salad (no I have not started buying brown underpants!).
Occasionally an item slips through from my old ‘detergent washing’ days and if it spends a night in the bedroom with me I usually pay dearly. One night I was convinced I had contracted flu – until I remembered that I had changed the bed-sheets the day before (old ‘detergent washed’ stock!).
What surprised me with this latest sinusitis incident was that the only item involved was a contaminated t-shirt hanging in my bedroom. This was sufficient to give me symptoms for at least 5 days – symptoms which subsided during the daytime (when I was out of the bedroom) and returned with a vengeance the following night. It really was like having a recurring hangover for 5 days. I suspect that I have become more sensitive to whatever causes these allergic responses because I have been so successful in eliminating detergents from my environment.
A key ‘warning signal’ for me is whether an item of clothing or linen has a perfumed smell. Now when I unpack any item of clothing from my storage boxes I give it a quick smell test. If I can smell perfume it goes into the washing machine (water only) before being worn. This can lead to some interesting situations – If you insist on smelling the undies of any potential partners before you sleep with them it can come across as a little unorthodox!
Something else to look out for is second hand clothes. Many of us are keen to encourage recycling and I went through a period of buying used Levi’s on E-bay. The supplier was anxious to let me know they had been washed and when they arrived I was knocked back by the smell of perfume. Even without my allergy they would have stayed in the washing machine long enough to eliminate that smell! So if you do use second hand clothes it is a good idea to wash them thoroughly to remove any contaminants.
One of the main reasons for sharing this information with you is to highlight that it is not only allergic contact dermatitis that you need to be aware of when coming into contact with textiles. You may also, like me, find that you react through inhalation. This is particularly possible if you dry your washing inside your home. As this example shows I am even sensitive to a small, single contaminated item after it has been dried, aired, and stored for several years.
I realise that I have been experiencing these inhalation based allergic reactions throughout my life. I now understand why I often became ill on the first night staying in a hotel or with friends and family (all situations which normally involve recently cleaned bed linen). These days I avoid these problems by not sleeping around – it is a bit much to expect people to provide linen that has only been washed in pure water (and just try turning up for a date with your own bed linen!).
These kind of allergic reactions are not only caused by detergent products. Many new clothes have chemicals added to them to make them appear brighter (especially white products) or to improve their processing or reduce wrinkles (like formaldehyde). Here is a link to a list from Greenpeace – Hazardous Chemicals in Clothing (it includes Alkylphenols, Phthalates, Brominated/Chlorinated Flame Retardants, Azo Dyes, Organotin Compounds, Perfluorinated Chemicals, Chlorobenzenes, Chlorinated Solvents, Chlorophenols, Short-chain Chlorinated Paraffins and Heavy Metals).
If you want to share similar experiences/tips of your own with other readers please use the comments box below. If you are concerned about confidentiality simply adopt a neutral name and avoid mentioning anything that could identify you (e-mail addresses are not published). In this way, others can benefit from your comments and it makes it easier for me (and others) to reply to you on the website. If you follow this website you will get updates as they happen.
So next time you wake up with a hangover – check whether there is something nearby that smells of perfume!