Medical Mystery: Chronic Migraines, Fatigue, and Allergies — What Caused This Woman’s Symptoms?
"Pain was a set part of my schedule."
44-year-old Michelle Allen had been struggling with fatigue, migraines, and allergies for five years. She assumed her work as a real estate agent was the main culprit, draining her energy and causing stress. Yet that reasoning didn’t explain why she had to skip out on family plans every weekend and take naps every afternoon.
“Like clockwork, every day at 2 p.m., I felt a powerful need to nap,” she tells FIRST. “I’d either find a way to stop at home or simply close the blinds and doze in my office … Pain was also a set part of my schedule. I started keeping my migraine medicine on top of my desk, like my stapler, since I needed it so often. I even referred to it as candy. I’d be talking to my husband on the phone and feel a headache coming on and say, ‘I’ve got to go. It’s time for my M&M’s.’ That sounds terrible, but that was my routine.”
A Problem at Home
Strangely enough, Allen wasn’t the only person in her house with symptoms. “My husband and two sons were constantly dealing with stuffy noses and sinus drainage,” she explains. “But I figured we were in the germ-y school years. I can’t even tally how many $40 boxes of allergy meds we bought.”
Allen admits that she did not seek professional help for her symptoms. “I never talked to my doctor about my fatigue and headaches,” she says. “They simply became part of my lifestyle. I sort of forgot where I ended and my symptoms began. Plus, I’d already had a lifetime’s worth of doctor visits. As a breast cancer survivor, I was happy to be alive. Still, I wished I wasn’t missing so many memory-making opportunities with my family.”
So, what was causing Allen to feel under-the-weather 24/7? She didn’t find out until she got her home air quality inspected. “One day, it was time for our home’s HVAC system to be inspected,” she continues. “Jason, the technician from Aire Serv, a Neighborly company, came out of the attic and asked, ‘Do y’all have allergies?’”
Jason wasn’t surprised; he had found a lot of dust in the attic. He used a machine to test the quality of Allen’s indoor air, and made additional discoveries: Allen’s home had high levels of pollen, pet dander (from Allen’s two dogs), and other pollutants. Even worse, the machine showed that the family was breathing dangerous volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
“I’d heard that term back when I was pregnant — with warnings not to be around paint fumes in the nursery — but since then, I had never thought about the harmful compounds surrounding me at home and in the houses I tour for my job,” Allen says.
Understanding Contaminants, and Why Your Air Quality Matters
For those who don’t know, VOCs are chemicals emitted from a wide array of products in our homes, including paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, furnishings, and more. Studies show that VOCs are two to five times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of where the home is located (such as a city verses a small town). While they might seem harmless, VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nosebleeds, fatigue (tiredness), nausea, and dizziness. In addition, research from the University of Colorado Boulder shows that routine household activities (even boiling water over a stovetop flame) can generate these chemicals, leaving indoor air quality on par with a polluted city. Add in pet dander, dust mites and pollen, and fatigue, headaches, and allergies can result.
Furthermore, dry winter air only exacerbates the problem, and may increase your risk of catching a cold or the flu. When scientists reporting in the journal PLOS ONE used “coughing” mannequins to simulate the spread of flu, they found that 77 percent of the virus was able to produce infection in a space where humidity was less than 43 percent, like most living rooms or offices right now. But where humidity levels were 43 percent or higher, the amount of active airborne virus dropped to 14 percent. Study author John Noti, PhD, explains, “High humidity may change the structure of viral proteins so the flu virus can’t properly bind or get drawn into our body’s cells.”
How Allen Improved Her Home Air Quality
“Since it was time to update my HVAC system anyway, I replaced the unit,” Allen says. “I even had a special UV-oxidizing light bulb installed with it inside my ducting to kill airborne microbes and neutralize off-gases. In the vent grates, I placed special filters (mine cost $120 for the year) that magnetize dust particles so they form clumps large enough to be captured. I couldn’t believe how much gunk they kept from recirculating. I also switched to natural cleaning products to purify the air in my home. And I started vacuuming more often — simple tweaks that didn’t cost much but helped me feel better right away.
“Within a month, I realized I had the energy to do things like attend my kids’ ballgames. I no longer longed for rest. I was sleeping better at night and not having headaches. Amazingly, we didn’t need to buy allergy medicine the entire year, even during peak sneezing season!
“I figured the new HVAC system would pay for itself in five years just from saving money on allergy medicine. But considering the increased productivity I was seeing in my career and how I was able to fully participate in my family’s life, it has already paid for itself!
“The long-term health benefits are a huge bonus for me. I love knowing I’m avoiding future illnesses and doctor visits. Now I tell everyone to test their indoor air. A home should be a safe haven, not someplace that makes you sick. I’m so happy to have my health back.”
How You Can Improve Your Home Air Quality
To keep your air in the germ-free zone, use a hygrometer (available on Amazon, $10.99) to test your home’s humidity. It should be at least 43 percent. Use a humidifier to moisten the air, moving it among the rooms where you spend the most time. No humidifier? Fill your slow cooker with water and set it on low, uncovered.
HVAC companies can test your air quality. Or you can monitor it yourself using a device like the Airthings Wave Mini (available on Amazon, $79.99).
Switch on exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms. Joseph Mercola, DO, author of Effortless Healing, says these rooms can harbor higher VOC levels, thanks to frequent use of harsh cleaning products. Also smart: Open windows — even just a crack.
Wash laundry on hot. Research from 2007 found washing clothes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit removed 90 percent of pet dander, 97 percent of pollen, and killed 100 percent of dust mites.
Go shoeless indoors. Put a shoe rack right by the door, and make it a habit to take off your shoes as soon as you enter your home. Better yet, leave your shoes outside, if you can. Research shows that keeping your shoes away from your living space reduces the toxins in your air.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.