Monday, October 26, 2015

Learning to Breathe (After Life in a Moldy Hoard House)

The title isn't a reference to something profound.  This post is literally about overcoming sinus problems associated with growing up in a wet, moldy hoard house.

I've mentioned here before how my childhood home had a flooded basement.  My parents said the house was built on an active spring, and they never had a sump pump installed.  The basement flooded every time it rained until, eventually, there was at least an inch of standing water over the basement's concrete floor even when it hadn't rained in days.  There was visible mold on the books and papers in the basement.  We weren't allowed to open the windows in the house either because "Dante is allergic to pollen," so the air in the house was perpetually stale and damp.  I lived there from birth until I left for college.

I have had severe sinus congestion for as long as I can remember.  When I was a child, my mother took me to the doctor regularly with sinusitis and upper respiratory infections, for which I was on antibiotics far more than any doctor today would prescribe them.  I remember being on either Amoxicillin or Augmentin for what seemed like most of elementary school.  I was prescribed them enough that I knew the drug names and what they were.  Even when I went to the doctor with what I can only assume were stress-fueled stomach aches, he told me, "You have an upper respiratory infection.  Here's a prescription for Augmentin." 

I can't remember the last time I took antibiotics for something and the problem didn't return within two weeks.  It was sometime before high school anyway -- I started researching and trying my own home remedies after that, and I found ones that worked.  I always finished all my antibiotics too, so that wasn't the problem.  I was just on prescription medications A LOT as a kid.  A lot more than should have been necessary.

My mother attempted to aid my congestion by keeping a humidifier in my bedroom, which at best probably exacerbated the problem.  She insisted on pointing it at my bed since that was where my breathing problems really bothered me, so my bed was damp whenever it was time to go to sleep.  When I redirected the humidifier so that it wouldn't dampen my bed, she would notice on her regular bedroom searches and move it back.  I finally had a talk with her about that -- both about the wet bedsheets and about how moisture dissipates through the air -- and thankfully she seemed to understand.  She also gave me a tiny Vick's inhaler with a sort of mild menthol scent.  It didn't seem to do anything, but I sniffed it obsessively in my bed at night for the first decade of my life in an attempt to be able to breathe through my nose.

At the age of eight, I tested positive for a mold allergy.  The doctor recommended I not keep bouquets of fresh flowers in my bedroom since plants are often a source of mold spores and he didn't know about the basement.  My mother now had a better reason than ever not to allow us to open the windows.  On the days when the weather forecast said the pollen count was low, the mold count was typically high from recent rain, so we stayed in our climate-controlled house and breathed the moldy air together.

When I was around eleven my dad introduced me to Dristan.  It's a medicated nasal spray that works like magic on even the worst congestion.  I wondered why he hadn't given me some earlier, but I didn't know it was highly habit forming or that it increases blood pressure and causes perpetual post nasal drip (that last one isn't even on the box).  I didn't learn any of that until I'd been using it for months, when I started noticing I had to use it more and more frequently to keep being able to breathe.  My dad had been using Dristan compulsively several times per day for twenty years at that point, so I guess it didn't occur to him to tell me any of the box warnings.

I weaned myself off Dristan for the first time when I was a senior in high school.  It was hard.  It meant enduring even worse congestion for several days until the withdrawal period wore off, then going back to the poor congestion of my childhood.  I started using it again my freshman year of college when I came down with a sinus infection.  I had sinus infections frequently growing up, and they would swell my entire nasal passage shut.  I couldn't sleep.  In college, using Dristan again seemed like less of a problem than not being able to sleep for several days in a row.

I weaned myself off the Dristan again a couple more times over the years.  Each time I started using it again was because of a sinus infection (which I treated by simply waiting for it to pass) and a complete inability to breathe through my nose.  I tried asking my doctor for help when I read that a prescription steroid nasal spray can help get through the withdrawal, but he said I should simply stop taking Dristan and learn to breathe through my mouth forever like everyone else.  Not terribly helpful.  I eventually developed a weaning process that made the withdrawal easier.  I also discovered the decongestant pseudoephedrine, which isn't habit forming when taken orally, such as in OTC allergy pills.  I also started using a neti pot regularly, which helped enormously.

When I was in my mid-twenties and had been off the Dristan but on oral decongestants for awhile, my doctor noticed that my blood pressure was higher than it should have been for someone so young.  He wrote it off to being nervous about being at the doctor's office, but I suspect the pseudoephedrine had something to do with it.  When I got pregnant, my blood pressure at every checkup was suddenly better than it had been in years.  It also happened to be the first time in years that I wasn't taking any kind of decongestant to aid my breathing.

I used Dristan again recently when I came down with a bad cold.  I find if I use it for three days or less there is no withdrawal period, and I managed to stop after two days when the congestion from the cold started to abate.  I was pleased with myself.  Dristan is a nasty beast, and being able to breathe through one's nose is highly addictive. 

Now that I'm getting older, I'm trying to manage my blood pressure better.  High blood pressure and heart disease run in my family on both sides, as does dying young (50-ish) of heart attacks.  I eat well and I exercise, and now I don't use decongestants regularly either.  I can breathe better now than at any point in my life thanks to discovering the SinuPulse Elite (I paid like $90 for it on Amazon, and it is worth every penny).  It's essentially an electric, pulsating neti pot.  It's like the Neti Pot 2.0.  I use it twice a day, spiked with a dash of Alkalol once a day (which doesn't appear to be a habit forming substance, but if you know things about it, I'd like to hear them).   I also drink enormous amounts of water.  My sicknesses still seem to last longer than they do for my husband or daughter -- I don't think my immune system will ever be quite as strong as theirs -- but my congestion isn't worse than theirs anymore.  I no longer dread going to bed at night and trying to breathe.  It probably also helps that, when I saw mold starting to form in one corner of my house from a leak in the roof, I immediately got the roof and drywall fixed. 

And my basement has TWO sump pumps.

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