Hand to Mouthville

“hands are the sexiest part of the body,” I repeat over and over in my thesis. Carpal, metacarpal, phalange. I am obsessed with hands, perhaps because my own are so uncooperative. Oh sure, they work, they do what I need them to do: my hands write and draw and take photos and assemble model airplanes, they make dinner and do the dishes, they sort clothing. But they aren’t much to look at. I used to joke that my hands belong in a circus, not attached to my body. My fingers curved at the distal bone, double jointed, my right pinky so bendable it can stretch all the way backward and touch the top of my hand. But perhaps this is the reason for my obsession – my own hands so deviant they don’t belong, the object of childhood ridicule. There’s a reason I used to keep my fingers curled up inside the arms of my sweaters, every shirt stretched out of shape in order to cover those obscene digits.

Yesterday at the grocery store, while loading my produce on the conveyor belt, the boy in line behind me couldn’t keep his eyes off my fingers. “What’s wrong with your hands?” he asked. Better to ask than just stare. “I’m allergic to the sun,” I explained. The boy’s mother gave me the look, and then said nobody’s allergic to the sun. Well, I must be nobody then. Except sun allergies are not unheard of. I used to have a professor who had vitiligo, had to wear big hats and long sleeves when she was outside for long periods. My own body attacks itself every spring or summer: that suntan you got last week (if you didn’t know) altered your DNA, and every year my immune system attempts to fight off these tiny changes, waging war against the skin of my hands, leaving a rash that itches and burns. All summer, my immune system fights against the sun, but the rash only lasts two weeks. It’s called Polymorphous Light Eruption (or PMLE), and it’s a form of Type IV hypersensitivity (a category that also includes Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, and Crohn’s Disease). Like other sensitivities in this category, PMLE is permanent – every year for the rest of my life, my body will fight with itself and the sun. PMLE is most common in caucasian women, and almost always develops before age 30 and then recurs every spring. Some research suggests that having a Type IV, cell-mediated hypersensitivity can eventually lead to other forms of autoimmune disease, like Lupus, and to the development (or worsening) of other allergies. Well. Isn’t that just a happy thought? This might explain why I suddenly developed food allergies at age 25 that have managed to become a lot worse in two years, and why I developed seasonal allergies at age 26.

The first time the rash appeared, I was 13. It was spring. Spring, in my house, meant my sister and I could finally play outside again, and entire days were spent in the backyard, reading and tormenting each other. And then my hands suddenly got very itchy, and blisters formed. Some, when they popped, left barely noticeable scars. Because I didn’t have a family doctor, I went to the walk-in clinic, where I was given a prescription for a steroid cream. At first, this was a blessing. Because nobody knew what had caused the blisters, I got out of gym class (it might be contagious, better not touch the other kids), and because the cream couldn’t be ingested, I got out of music class (better not touch the clarinet’s reed or mouth piece, I might eat the steroid smeared across both hands). I didn’t want to play clarinet anyway. The cream didn’t help, but eventually the blisters went away. And then they came back in the fall, only this time as a rash of tightly clustered hives that were itchier than a thousand mosquito bites and burned whenever they were scratched, touched, lightly brushed or stuck under water. Every year, that rash returned in the spring and again in the fall, and every year the bumps clustered themselves around my index fingers and thumbs. Several times, I went to the walk-in clinic for relief, but nothing helped. Not the steroid creams, not the cortisone creams, not the calamine or aloe or ice cubes balanced on my fingers to ease the burning. And then last spring, my first in Calgary, they didn’t appear until I went home to Windsor in June – then they cropped up. I thought it was something to do with the giant, gaping hole in the ozone layer over southern Ontario, the intense pollution, the extreme heat. This year, they waited until July to wreak havoc. That was my clue. It’s not the pollution or the heat, it’s the sun. Every year when I lived in Windsor, the first few warm days of spring were spent biking, my hands hanging out in direct sunlight, gripping the bike’s handlebars. Every fall, Windsor gets a nice “Indian summer,” a few hot days in late September or early October, and every year I used those days to bike – more direct sunlight after a few weeks of being holed up in a classroom. This year, the rash appeared the day after my outing to the Stampede, when I spent hours and hours in direct sunlight after months of being stuck inside my apartment or the library. Except this year, the rash spread between all my fingers, covered the backs of both hands, and crept upward across my forearms to my elbows. I didn’t realize, but I’d been scratching in my sleep, my hands and fingers so swollen I can’t get any of my rings on. My wrists so swollen, I thought my one bracelet was going to cut off circulation to my left hand. Last night, I dissolved a Motrin tablet and smeared the orange paste across my hands and fingers, which at least helped some of the swelling and redness even though it did nothing for the burning itch.

Evidence of the war between my immune system and the sun.

What the photo doesn’t announce is the rash between my other fingers, the red welts across my wrist, or the fact that my fingers are so swollen, that pale band on my ring finger is where my graduation ring has rested for more than 2 years, and that it no longer fits. But the swelling will eventually subside, the rash will disappear (until next summer), and soon my hands won’t feel like they’re on fire.

Hands are the sexiest part of the body, but mine refuse to cooperate. My hands are ground zero for the war between my immune system and the sun, and every year the war progresses up the length of my arms.

“What’s wrong with your hands?” that boy wanted to know.  I’m allergic to the sun. Yes.

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3 thoughts on “Hand to Mouthville

  1. i have the same thing, only I’m in new zealand where there is no ozone layer. Mine blister, i pop them, they swell, they are itchy, at night they itch, sometimes they are sore. They uz clear liquid, when the liquid sets, its yellowish. Its been a month and it sucks. been using chamomile and lions tail ice cubes, .5 hydrocortisone cream, and moisturizing. I thought it was lactose, now I’m not sure, I do think i got it after a very sunny day. I go back and forth thinking its lactose, thinking its sun. I don’t know…. Hope yours feel better soon.

    1. The first year I had this problem, they appeared as small blisters on my hands, filled with a clear liquid. If I remember correctly, they lasted about a month. Now they seem to last about 2-3 weeks, appearing once or twice a year, and they’re just small red hives. Does it burn when you scratch? Or when you put them in water? I’m not sure on the actual diagnosis of a sun allergy, but it seems burning is a common thing. Also swelling is common in any type of allergic reaction – real or imagined. Like if you scratch the bumps and they burn, does it feel like the area is swollen? If it’s a lactose thing, I’m thinking the bumps would be more on your core (chest, stomach, neck), whereas a sun reaction tends to appear on the extremities (hands, arms), although it can occur just about anywhere. If you’re unsure of the cause, try an elimination diet. Cut out all lactose and see if that helps. Also use a very high SPF sun block when you’re outside (after the bumps heal!), just in case it is a sun reaction. But whether it’s lactose or the sun, an antihistamine should help stop your body from reacting negatively. Beyond that, I actually use a very thick eczema cream on my hands when the hives show up. It stops the itching even if it doesn’t make the bumps go away. Hope that helps! Also see an allergist – they’d be able to tell you for sure if it’s lactose or not, but they can’t really diagnose a sun allergy…

  2. So glad to have found this – I’ve been told many times before that my fingers look like they are made out of rubber because they bend so strangely. Not to mention they are also covered with tiny itchy bumps from my recent all (sunny) day trip to the zoo…

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