Southern Life

I’ve been an allergy sufferer for most of my life. I started getting shots when I was 8 or 9-years-old and am still going strong. Trees, grass, flowers, if it exists in the natural world, I probably have some sort of sensitivity to it. My allergies have expressed themselves in stuffy nose, runny nose, coughs, headaches and itchy and watery eyes. In addition to my shots, I’ve taken many pills and sprays and have accepted allergies as a part of my life.


Then, a few years ago, around the Fall of 2008, I started waking up to some small raised rashes on my abdomen, not a lot, but one or two at first. They would itch a little, then disappear over the course of the day. I didn’t pay much attention to them at first because I figured I had dry skin and would rub some lotion on them. Then they started to increase and stayed on my body longer throughout the day. This caused some concern. I talked to my allergist and he had me start keeping a food chart for everything I ate. I changed laundry detergents and analyzed fabrics. I checked everything. I thought that I had finally put my finger on it. I was on an acid reflux medication that was a time-release pill. Since my hives would start showing up during the night and fade away during the day and then begin the cycle all over again come night time, I thought that it had to be the medication releasing in my body. When I read about allergic reactions to the medication, it seemed to match my symptoms. So, I quit taking the medication and waited to rid it from my system. The hives didn’t go away though.

My food charts didn’t seem to be turning up any results either. Neither I nor my allergist could see any standout foods that could be causing an allergic reaction. I changed my diet often, so there were quite a variety of foods. Frustration ensued. Maybe it wasn’t even an allergy at all; I didn’t know. Then, December of that year, I went to a Christmas party where there were all kinds of finger foods. I was already breaking out in hives before I left. On my way home, I noticed that the inside of my mouth was feeling itchy and burning. I had a scheduled appointment with my allergist the next day, so I just decided to pop a few allergy pills and tried to sleep it off until my appointment.

When I saw my allergist again, he still didn’t have many answers for me. I think he prescribed some heavier allergy medication and sent me on my way. After dinner that night (Chinese carry-out to be exact), my mouth began to itch and burn and the hives started popping up. I took my allergy medication and hoped that would help. As the night went on, my throat felt exceptionally dry. I drank water and thought, foolishly, that maybe I could flush out whatever it was that was causing me to feel so awful. Then I looked at my mouth in the mirror. My tongue was getting bigger. My uvula (the fleshy thing that hangs down in the back of your mouth/throat) was becoming less visible. I figured this sudden tongue growth might interfere with my breathing, so I took off to the emergency room.

At the hospital, I got pumped full of antihistamines and steroids intravenously. The swelling and hives went down and I could breathe again. The ER doctor prescribed some Prednisone in addition to the antihistamines that I was already taking. I spent the Christmas holiday still unsure of what was causing my problems and in anxiety of anaphylaxis.

Then it hit me. After a day of eating a lot of junk food and breaking out in hives, I looked over my food chart and realized the common denominator: corn. Pop-Tarts, cake and ice cream all definitely contained high fructose corn syrup. When I started trying to cut corn products out of my diet, the hives started going down and becoming less intense. At my next appointment with my allergist, I brought him my food charts and explained that I thought it was corn. He looked over my charts and said, “Yep, you’re probably right,” and told me to try to stay away from products with corn in them. He also told me that the more I expose myself, the more sensitive I’ll become.

While it was great to finally know what was causing my problems, I now had to figure out how to live with it, since no one has been brilliant enough to come up with a cure for food allergies. It seems easy enough at first; stay away from corn (duh), pop corn, corn chips, products with high fructose corn syrup like sodas, fruit drinks, Pop-Tarts, most ice creams and syrups. Then, to break my little, Southern heart, I had to give up grits and corn bread. Though devastating to lose, they were obvious no-nos. As you begin to read food labels more closely, you realize that it’s not that simple. More items contain high fructose corn syrup than one would think, like breads, cereals, candy, ketchup, cookies, cakes, mayonnaise, crackers, yogurt, salad dressings, sauces, soups, and the list could continue to fill out this page. Once you get past the high fructose corn syrup, there’s the plain ol’ corn syrup you have to get around. Then look for corn starch, modified corn starch, food starch (which usually means corn) and modified food starch. This means that you can cut out most dry mixes for foods such as cakes, breads, pancakes and muffins.

Reading labels is a pain in the rear, especially when you’re in a busy, cramped grocery store aisle with people breathing down your neck to move out of their way, so I learned basically what I could and couldn’t have and continued to take more than the recommended dose of antihistamines on a daily basis. Not thinking through, I switched from Zyrtec to a generic form of the drug to try to save some money. The active ingredient was the same, so it should be fine, right? I started to break out in hives more. Then I looked at the inactive ingredients and top on the list was corn starch. That’s why they can charge so much less for those medications. I went back to shelling out more money for the Zyrtec, which contains microcrystalline cellulose and magnesium stearate that are also ingredients derived from corn. Fortunately, I don’t seem to react as bad to those ingredients.

A few months ago, I noticed that my underarms were starting to itch and rashes would break out in that area. I looked at the ingredients on my deodorant and corn starch was one of the star ingredients. Not only is corn in most of our food, but it’s in our hygiene products as well. Your toothpaste and mouthwash probably have sorbital and sodium saccharin in them, which are derivatives of corn. Your shampoo, conditioner, and body wash probably also at least contain citric acid, which, of course, mostly comes from corn when produced by man.

There’s so much more to list, but I think you get the point. We live in a culture that revolves around corn, even though most of us don’t realize it. It’s cheap and abundant, but it will eventually kill us. It’s already harming a growing number of allergy sufferers. The scary thing is that the FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to state whether their products are made with or in a factory that also processes corn products. As people speak out against the harm of this ingredient overexposure, the corn producers push back with advertisements stating that one’s body can’t tell the difference between corn sugar and regular sugar. My body begs to differ! As I fight with the anger, seclusion (My friends love Mexican food. My body starts to itch when I even look at a Mexican restaurant, so I opt to stay home alone instead of go out to eat with them.), minor depression and anxiety that this food allergy brings, I also take time to try to count my blessings. While it’s more expensive, I have a health food store that has banned all high fructose corn syrup and a lot of the artificial ingredients that are derived from corn.  Smaller towns in this region lack that. I also have the means to buy those foods and the healthcare that I need to monitor my allergy. The organic, high fructose corn syrup-free icing on this corn-free cake is that I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to be a size 4; with all these food restrictions, I just might find out.

April Adams

April Adams

April Adams is a South Carolinian with a passion for creating. She designs and develops Web sites and makes videos for a living as a freelancer. She's also in love with the written word and its power to evoke emotion, change minds and move people to action.

  1. Frank Povah

    Strewth, how do you cope? I also try to avoid corn syrup; not for reasons of allergies, but just on principle. (I also try to avoid all packaged meals from the supermarket, much to my wife’s disgust.) It’s amazing what the stuff crops up in: hot dogs, bacon, ham; not to mention “maple” syrup and “sorghum” syrup. And why does something need high-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup in it?

    1. April Adams

      You’re right, Frank, it’s in everything, especially those deli meats unless stated otherwise. I am fortunate enough to have an Earthfare store near me. And I’ve asked the same question about products containing high fructose corn syrup AND corn syrup. What’s the deal?! Thanks for standing on your principles and not buying that crap. If enough people quit buying it, they’ll be forced to come up with healthier alternatives. Until then, I’ll continue to flick off my TV every time one of those pro corn commercials comes on. Sure it doesn’t solve anything, but it makes me feel a tiny bit better, ha!

  2. Well written and insightful. I seem to be allergic to dust. A few years ago I began to break out when I’d work around poison ivy. For years it was not a problem. Now it is.

    1. April Adams

      Oddly enough, the more you’re exposed to something, the more likely you are to develop an allergy to it. It seems like it should be the opposite, doesn’t it?

      1. A doctor explained it to me like this, which helped me understand — assume that at birth, you’re given a bucket of tolerance for each substance you will ever encounter. Every time you need to dip into it, there’s less left in the bucket. Eventually, of course, your bucket of tolerance is zip, but Zyrtek helps to replenish it. He used the same metaphor for stress, which was a huge problem for me those days.

        Good article… very complete and succinct with a huge subject. Since you are a web designer, I bet it’d be a major asset to have a site devoted to corn allergies.

  3. Will Cantrell

    Thanks for the info, April … and the confirmation. I thought that I was the only one.
    I figured out a few months ago, on my own, that I am allergic to corn. I am pretty sure that I ‘grew” into this allergy as I got older. Didn’t used to be. Now I can’t even eat popcorn without getting a really bad headache. I’ve had to give my stock of Orville Reddenbacher’s away. Good piece. Thanks. Will

    1. April Adams

      Thanks, Will; you’re not alone! I “grew” into my allergy as well. I still have a box of popcorn in the back of my cabinet that reminds me of my former life. I’m toying with the idea of starting a corn allergy Web site since, while there is some info out there, there’s not one well made comprehensive site out there.

  4. Our younger son, who’s always had an allergy to milk from Florida cows, also has a “thing” about high fructose corn syrup and keeps it away from his son. Since I don’t like sweetened foods and prefer to cook from scratch, I’d never given it much thought until he explained that the purpose of adding it to processed foods is to make people want to eat more. Then I remembered that I’d noticed that having store-bought cinnamon raisin bread for breakfast left me feeling hungrier sooner than if I’d had no breakfast at all. Which, since I mainly eat to stop feeling hungry, sort of defeats the purpose.
    But, if the hypothesis that corn syrup increases the sensation of hunger is valid, then it seems fair to conclude that the country’s obesity crisis isn’t a happenstance but, at best, an unanticipated consequence of food processors’ desire for increased sales and profit margins. People are being tricked into buying cheap food that makes them eat more, leaves them feeling hungry and makes them sick, to boot. Reminds me of fattening geese.

    1. April Adams

      You’re right, Monica. I’ve noticed a difference in my appetite since I went off the “syrup.” It is pretty brutal at first since you feel like you’re going to starve to death, but after you get over the hump, like with any addiction, I suppose, life gets a lot better.

  5. Awesome article, April! I vow to never again make faces at or snarky comments about label-checking people in the grocery store. If you weren’t already one of my heroes, you certainly would be now.

  6. Robert Lamb

    Good article. Glad you finally figured out the problem. I’ve been told that it’s nearly impossible to track down the cause of an allergic reaction. You were quite the sleuth.

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