This allergy isn't a fad. It made my skin peel

Last updated 09:00 10/11/2014

BURNING UP: Sulphur in places like Rotorua makes Sarah Lawson break out in painful burn-like blisters.

Does an allergy rule your life?

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Does an allergy rule your life?

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I suffered my first allergic reaction as a 6 month old when my mother contracted bronchitis. Her course of Penicillin caused me to break out in a full body burning rash, and apparently vomit so forcefully from the back seat of the car that the whole front windscreen was covered.

Forced to move from breast milk to formula, they then discovered that I was allergic to both cow's milk-based formula and soy-based formula. I had to have special goat's milk formula shipped in.

That may not sound like a big deal now, but in the 1970s, in Bulls, goat's milk formula was unheard of.

Despite what you commonly read nowadays that 'there were no allergies around when I was a child, I was not the only baby in Bulls with allergies. My best friend was allergic to egg too, and our mums brought us up with the attitude common to the time: Just don't eat it.

We were never made to feel like we were odd, or different, and it was not a big thing to worry about.

Unfortunately the typical Kiwi 'she'll be right' attitude is not one I have been able to keep as I have grown up.

I went on to be diagnosed with a Vitamin C allergy as a young child, as I would break out in head to toe hives when I ate fruit or vegetables, drank fruit juice or Raro drinks, or had any type of multivitamin tablet.

I now know that what I am actually reacting to is family of chemicals called Salicylates. Salicylates are not only found in fruits and vegetables, but in make-up, sunscreens, perfumes, medicines...the list is exhaustive.

Right about now I can hear the comments: "Harden up! It's just a rash". "Stop being so precious/picky/fussy and just eat your fruit and vegetables". "Is that the latest fad diet?".

I've heard them all before, and to a certain extent that brush-off attitude was one I used to adopt myself.

Then I had children. They started to get sick and needed antibiotics. I suddenly discovered that it was not so easy to just avoid things and carry on.

If I spilled any antibiotics on my skin I would blister and burn immediately. If I kissed my kids goodnight after they had their medicine I went numb around my lower face and my tongue swelled.

Then six years ago one of my kids had to go on an extended course of antibiotics and I started to break out in a burning blistery rash.

Doctors originally decided I had picked up a skin infection and put me on a course of antibiotics to cure it. The burning spread, and my skin started to peel from the inside of my ears and nose.

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Over a six-week period I saw six different doctors, all with different diagnoses, until I was finally sent to a dermatologist.

By this time I had started to lose my hair and 90 percent of my body was covered in deep burns and blisters.

The first thing she said was that it looked like I had smallpox. Next she asked me if I'd been on holiday recently.

I realised that two years earlier I had suffered a similar reaction after a few days in Rotorua. It was then that she realised that I had been given a sulphur-based antibiotic to treat the first reaction to the Flucoxicillin I was giving my son. My past reactions to the sulphur-laden water and air in Rotorua, Tokaanu and Taupo had never been linked, but my exposure to this antibiotic meant it was now clear I had a severe allergy to sulphur.

In this situation, the long exposure to multiple allergens had unfortunately led to me developing Stevens-Johnsons Syndrome (SJS), an auto-immune response following an allergic reaction, normally to a medicine or chemical. It meant that my immune system was basically recognising my own skin as being a threat and reacted by forming third-degree burn-like blisters in order to remove my skin from my body.

It took months before my skin was healed and my hair started to re-grow.

Since that first attack I have had three other big SJS flare-ups. Last year a sewage pipe on the floor above my office got blocked and over the period of 10 days I suffered from nine seizure-like episodes, which I now realise were signs of anaphylaxis to the sulphur in the sewage.

I now have to carry an adrenaline auto-injector at all times.

My past annoyances with food have all grown into full-blown allergies.

I am trained as a research scientist, but can no longer work in a laboratory environment due to my reactions to the chemicals used.

While pollens may be the biggest problem to most hayfever sufferers, at the moment I am suffering from firework season as sulphur is one of the main ingredients in blackpowder.

Does an allergy rule my life? I certainly work hard to make sure that it doesn't, but it has definitely changed every aspect of my life.

Allergies have changed my life and my family's life, but I am very lucky to be surrounded in the most part by people who are 100 percent supportive of these changes.

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