Journal of Personal Science: Nasal Congestion Due to Fabric Allergies

by Nathanael Nerode

I have an inhalation allergy to polyester and acrylic dust that caused no end of trouble, especially nasal congestion. It took 20 years to figure out.

I live in Ithaca, NY. My nasal congestion started after a multi-month trip to China in 6th grade, in 1988. The air in Beijing was truly awful, and literally everyone had nasal congestion while there. But my congestion didn’t go away when I came back.

To figure out why it hadn’t gone away, a doctor (allergist) back in roughly 8th grade did prick tests. The “dust” test was said to use actual dust collected from houses. In retrospect, it presumably included polyester dust. It was the only prick test, other than the control histamine injection, to show an allergic response. The idiot doctor proceeded to claim that I had a dust mite allergy even though the “dust mite” prick test was negative. I told him no, I didn’t, and he should learn to read his test results. I asked what was in household dust other than skin, hair and mites. He somehow did not manage to come up with “fabric”. If I’d been bright enough to think of that then, I might have been able to figure this out much sooner.

In some ways my nasal congestion was quite bad. I got secondary sinus infections repeatedly, due to the airways never, ever clearing out. I carried Kleenex with me everywhere, and bought it by the case. I had to mop my nose a few times every hour. When I caught a cold, the frequency would increase to every couple of minutes.

The congestion lasted continuously through multiple living quarters at college and back in Ithaca — of course, at all those locations I had brought a full set of clothes, and had a typical polyester bed, and most had carpeting. It mysteriously cleared up once — during a trip to North Carolina. Only in retrospect did I realize that on the trip I was sleeping on a futon in a house with no carpeting, with nothing but cotton clothes.

The allergies were definitely triggered more indoors than outdoors and were worse in fall than spring. I quickly eliminated the possibility of detergents by repeated changes of detergent with no result. I was then stuck with no further ideas for 20 years.

After 20 years, I moved into a new house while bringing very little with me (only a couple of sets of clothes). Suddenly my allergies went away. I realized the cause was something in the old house but not the new house.

I could keep stuff at the old house, and I moved in really slowly, so I was able to do challenge-response experiments, with a multi-week test time for each.

I had had work done on the new house. I first eliminated wood dust, tile dust, drywall dust, and grout dust as possibilities, because they were all over the place while I was there. Then I moved in huge piles of books. Still no allergies.

Then I moved in my clothes. (Still no bed, latex futon.) My allergies came back instantly. I moved the clothes back out, sorted them by fabric, and waited four weeks for my symptoms to clear.

Then I moved the clothes back in one fabric at a time, with a two-week testing period to see whether symptoms developed for each. Luckily I was not allergic to the first thing I tried, which was cotton.

After finding the polyester allergy and moving the polyester out, I waited four weeks for symptoms to clear up before moving the next set in. Eventually I found the acrylic allergy too.

I also had to stop testing for a month or so at least three times when I caught colds, as determined by additional symptoms or by family and friends developing the same symptoms.

This took a long time — about a year — and is not a straightforward option for most people. I haven’t tested every fabric yet. I stopped after I got through all the common ones.

After I was “detoxed”, I started having a noticeable mild contact allergy to polyester and acrylic, which confirmed the conclusions. I think this wasn’t noticeable before due to constant exposure creating suppression of the response.

So I solved the problem from a combination of luck (moving into the new house showed that it wasn’t generic “dust”) and pure grinding testing, much like most science.

I’m not sure many people would have the opportunity to test the way I did. I modeled what I did on the hardcore “challenge” protocol used for food allergies where you start with a very limited diet and “challenge” it with one thing at a time. How many people can do that with fabrics? You need a place to store the rest of your clothes. You may need to buy all-cotton socks or underwear or shirts or pants if you didn’t own any (luckily I did) — and you need to have no carpet and remove your BED from the house (which I had done anyway coincidentally).

5 Replies to “Journal of Personal Science: Nasal Congestion Due to Fabric Allergies”

  1. Thanks for the great article Nathanael. The key insight was that you took the absence of symptoms seriously and decided to investigate it further. Too often we fail to recognize that a sudden change in symptoms is both relevant and an interesting question to explore further.

  2. Wow. Just wow.

    I have read anecdotes about people who follow a paleo diet see their allergy response decreased. Presumably, removing inflammatory foods from the diet causes the body’s inflammation response to go down and the body reacts less to the allergen. I wonder if the author of this tried removing certain foods from his diet (dairy, grains, etc.) after figuring out the polyester and acrylic allergy to see if the body reacted less severely.

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