My Dad’s ‘mystery cold’

My Sherlock Holmes moment.

June 15, 2017

Investigating a mysterious illness

A few years back my Dad was in the US at my sister’s place.

He suffered for a couple of months from what he thought was a cold because the main symptom was a perpetually runny rose.

Everyone around him assumed it was a cold and therefore didn’t think it was necessary for him to get checked by a Doctor.

He tried taking all kinds of cold medications but nothing worked.

My aunt who is a Doctor thought it might be ‘Allergic Rhinitis’ and prescribed an allergy medication but even that only provided temporary relief.

My Mom couldn’t see my Dad suffering anymore and gave me a call one day to tell me about my Dad’s cold which didn’t get better in months.

This is how the conversation went.

Me: What are Dad’s symptoms?

Mom: Continuous sneezing and a perpetually runny nose.

Me: Did you check with a Doctor?

Mom: As there are no other symptoms apart from a runny nose, your Dad doesn’t want to go to a Doctor. In the US, health care is expensive so he wants to go back to India for a check up.

Me: Did you talk to Dad’s sister? What is she saying?

Mom: She prescribed over the counter medicines for ‘Allergic Rhinitis’. He tried that but it only provides temporary relief for short periods of time.

Me: Hmm..Is the mucous yellowish or greenish?

Mom: It is clear.

Me: Doesn’t seem to be a bacterial infection as mucous is clear. Any other symptoms?

Mom: No.

Me: How long has he been suffering?

Mom: 2-3 months now.

Me: When are the symptoms worst? What times during the day?

Mom: Mainly in the morning. When he takes the allergy medication, it provides relief for a few hours but the symptoms reappear next morning.

Me: Does the room you both sleep in have carpets?

Mom: Yes, but I don’t have any allergy issues and neither did he have any the last time we were here.

Me: Strange. Did anything change this time?

Mom: He started sleeping on the floor because of back pain due to sleeping on the soft beds.

Me: Eureka! That is exactly the problem. Sleeping on the carpeted floor is causing the allergy. Everyday he wakes up with the allergy symptoms because of the exposure to the carpets (even though he is not directly sleeping on the carpets). The allergy medication is only providing temporary relief but as soon as he wakes up the next morning the symptoms are reoccurring.

I suggest the following:

  1. Ask him to sleep in a room without carpets.
  2. Open the windows of the room so that there is good air circulation.
  3. Ask him to go out for a walk every day to get some fresh air.

After a couple of days, my Mom calls me up…

Mom: Thank you very much. Your Dad is feeling much better now after following your suggestions. It is such a relief to see him breathe easy!

What helped me connect the dots?

  • When we moved to the UK my wife developed similar symptoms. The GP in the UK suggested that we get an allergy test done. During the allergy test you are briefly exposed to various allergens to check how your body reacts. We were very surprised to discover that my wife was allergic to dust(presumably dust mites). We spent many years in Hyderabad(India) where we were exposed to pollution of various kinds but we never developed any allergy symptoms so this was a big revelation. I understood that body’s reaction to air pollution due to vehicles, dust pollution due to roads is not necessarily the same as that due to dust mites.

  • We were exposed to Carpets for the first time when we came to the UK. We realized that carpets are a big ‘hidden’ source of dust mites. My wife’s allergy used to flare up whenever she cleaned the carpets. Carpets can have a lot of dust and dirt permanently embedded into that no amount of vacuuming can get them out. Dust mites burrow down deep into the carpet and can hold on fast. It’s virtually impossible to vacuum up live dust mites.

  • Having an open mind, logical thinking from first principles and leveraging prior experience.

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