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The Nutty Lady at the Coffeehouse

That’s me. I bounce from one table to the next as new people sit down. Once I even shifted all my stuff to a new table, started to sit in the chair and then moved everything back to one seat over from where I just was. It’s not like I just moved my latte back and forth. I also have a computer, iPod, water bottle, bag and sweater.

I needed to escape from someone’s perfume. It’s a sickeningly sweet floral-ish scent, which would be disgusting even if it weren’t a headache trigger. I’m having a good day; there’s no way I would wreck it in the otherwise lovely coffeehouse.

The perfume is being overpowered by garlic sauteed in butter. That smells fabulous, but the cloying scent has already done its damage. And the woman across from me just put on lotion. . .

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Bus Shelters Trigger Headaches

At least the ones in San Francisco did on Monday. In a clever (if not well-thought out) marketing move, the California milk industry added the scent of chocolate chip cookies to their Got Milk? ads in five of the city’s bus shelters. The idea was that once people smelled cookies, they’d crave milk.

When scent-sensitive folks smell artificial cookie odors, they are more likely to have headaches or asthma attacks than a glass of milk. Advocates for people with environmentally triggered illnesses raised a stink, and the ads were pulled yesterday.

And I thought the most obvious problem with the ad strategy is that when people smell cookies, they crave cookies, not milk. I can’t laugh too much though — if Seattle bus shelters were scented with cinnamon or rose, I’d throw a fit too.

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That Stinks

Certain odors are obvious and terrible headache triggers for me, but I avoid artificial or strong scents and other triggering smells as much as possible. The cleaning products and air “fresheners” used in hotels can be really bad, but I’m generally OK if I stay in a non-smoking room.

Then there are the times that my plans don’t work out.

The first night Hart and I were visiting my sister, we stayed in a hotel so her cat and dog wouldn’t exacerbate his allergies. This was the first time we’d done so and were excited to have a pet-free place to spend time with the kids.

Everything was fine until we got into our room, which had the air conditioning on but was hotter than the horrendous heat outside. When we went to switch rooms, we were told that the room with the broken AC was the last non-smoking room available. The only other hotel in town is a dodgy place, so taking the smoking room was really our only option.

The cleaning crew had achieved the goal of covering up the smoke smell — with strawberry bubblegum-scented air freshener. I was near tears. This was supposed to be an easy, relaxing couple days during which we had fun with my sister and her family. But noooo, nothing is ever that easy. We debated our non-existent options and knew that all we could do was spend as little time in the room as possible.

It turned out OK. My sister and her family are building a house (literally), so we toured the framed-in rooms and laughed at their 100-pound dog who insisted in lying in a not-hooked-up bathtub. The we took the kids to see Pirates of the Caribbean, which meant a smoke- and pet-free three hours.

I got a migraine in the night and woke up feeling like I needed to hose out my nose, but felt much better after I showered and checked out of the room.

Telling you this story is kind of silly. There was no drama in the event, nor is there an illuminating solution that could make all your travels odor-free. I’m just complaining because the whole thing stunk. (tee, hee)

Today we’re off to go camping in Glacier National Park. We’ll spend tonight in a hotel so we don’t have to set up camp after dark. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we’ll get a non-stinky non-smoking room.

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Self-Care or Alternative Medicine?

I’ve blogged a lot about meds and medical devices, but haven’t really discussed “alternative” therapies. There are two reasons for this. The first is that none of the alternative treatments that I have tried have worked for me, so I don’t think to recommend them. The more important reason is that much of the advice of alternative practitioners is what I think of as simply taking care of myself. I do employ many of the strategies of alternative medicine; I just don’t think of them as alternative.

The non-alternative alternative therapies that I try to follow:

Eat simply prepared produce and meat
Frozen veggies make this much easier and Penzeys Spices make it tastier; both make preparation a snap. I also eat a lot of organic produce and organic free-range meat. Living in the northwest give me an advantage with this; organic is easy to come by and isn’t outrageously expensive.

Avoid inhaling potentially harmful chemicals or substances
Since most artificial scents or offensive odors trigger headaches for me, this is pretty easy. Most of my cleaning products are homemade or from Seventh Generation and candles are beeswax or soy. And, as I’ve already complained, I am careful to find home furnishings that don’t off-gas much.

Avoid potentially harmful food additives
Avoid all forms of MSG, nitrates, nitrites, sulfates, sulfites, and artificial sweeteners, flavorings or colorings. This means skipping almost all convenience foods, sauces and dressings.

Exercise and relax
My beloved yoga is out, but I try to take a short walk every day, even if it is just to my favorite coffeehouse (.8 miles round trip!). Meditation is beyond my grasp, but I do try to lie down, breathe deeply and relax all my muscles for about 10 minutes each day. This is usually when I lie down to go to sleep, but I figure every little bit counts.

Use aromatherapy
Maybe essential oils help my headaches, maybe not, but I love smelling lavender, mint and orange. I smell them straight from the bottle, rub them on my temples, burn them with a candle or put them in a spray bottle with alcohol (is that a harmful-to-inhale substance?) and use them as air fresheners.

Don’t mistake me for a whole health goody goody. These are all steps I try to do, which means that I do them most of the time unless I want to go out for dinner, get my shower really clean, take advantage of high energy days or be lazy. But I do feel better when I follow the “rules.” The days I give in to reading a book and eating cookie dough all day are indulgences that I pay for with more headaches.

(P.S. Many of the foods and products I mention are more expensive than conventional varieties. I stock up on frozen vegetables when they are on sale, burn fewer candles than I used to, and remind myself that meds are expensive too.)

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Indoor Air Quality

Yesterday I psyched myself up for a day of rug shopping. I knew I’d be doing a lot of driving and that I’d probably get lost, so I grabbed some CDs, and packed water and trigger-free food in case I got hungry. Within 30 minutes total at two furniture stores, my headache was almost unbearable. I headed home with all my packed essentials untouched.

I blame the rugs, with their adhesives, moth-proofing chemicals and artificial latex backing, but everything from wood finishes on tables to couch cushions was off-gassing. I’m now worried that all the furniture and rugs in my future will have to be made of natural fibers without any chemicals or artificial latex.

Unfortunately, “healthy furniture,” as it’s sometimes called, costs three times as much as “regular” upholstered furniture. Chemical-free carpeting can be cut and bound like a rug. Too bad it’s only available in solid colors or patterns and textures that I don’t like. So, I can either have products that don’t make me sick and don’t fit my decorating scheme or products that look great and give me such a headache that I can’t sit in my living room.

Ever the researcher, I’m reading about chemical sensitivity and indoor air pollution. Now the goal is to not go overboard and banish all chemicals from my house. It’s not realistic and probably not necessary. As an EPA booklet says, “The relative importance of any single source depends on how much of a given pollutant it emits and how hazardous those emissions are.” Although, further on in the pamphlet, it says,

“Some sources, such as building materials, furnishings, and household products like air fresheners, release pollutants more or less continuously. Other sources, related to activities carried out in the home, release pollutants intermittently. These include smoking, the use of unvented or malfunctioning stoves, furnaces, or space heaters, the use of solvents in cleaning and hobby activities, the use of paint strippers in redecorating activities, and the use of cleaning products and pesticides in housekeeping. High pollutant concentrations can remain in the air for long periods after some of these activities.”

Avoiding pollutants isn’t my biggest concern; avoiding pollutants that trigger headaches is. Or do all indoor air pollutants add up to contribute to headaches? Will my pain trump my love of houses and interior design, just as it has for food, dogs and yoga? Or will I have to shell out big bucks to keep it from doing so?