Last Thursday’s column.
Many Caucasians look forward to the summer as though it were Christmas. After cold and dreary winters, they get excited over the thought of sunny beaches and basking in the sun to acquire an enviable tan. I’m not Caucasian, I like the beach like most Filipinos, but sunbathing is not my idea of fun. Fifteen minutes under intense sunlight and my skin burns. Literally. Red spots that, days later, turn into blisters. When I was in my third year in the U.P. College of Law, I joined a march that began at the Sto. Domingo Church and ended at Liwasang Bonifacio. The following day, fellow students who did not join the march remarked at my red skin and asked to what beach I went to. Funny. There was a group of us that joined the march and only I was asked about the beach.
Perhaps, having sensitive skin is something genetic. My brother has a sun allergy and his skin breaks out in red itchy spots, often accompanied by headaches, when he stays under the sun. He couldn’t attend normal CMT classes in college but had problems getting exempted because doctors, who didn’t have a name for his condition, could not, or would not, issue a medical certificate. All they did was to write prescriptions for this and that ointment.
Today, we know sun allergy as solar urticaria. One of my daughters has it too. You’ll never see her wearing a swimsuit on the beach – she keeps as much of her skin covered by wearing sleeved shirts and long shorts. When she was in high school and P.E. classes required her to play football (sometimes, at eleven o’clock in the morning), I took it upon myself to explain her condition to the school and to appraise them too about how difficult it was to get a medical certificate given my brother’s experience who had gone to doctors who did not even have a name for his condition.
Sadly, the school took on the attitude that my daughter was just too lazy to attend her P.E. classes. Her refusal to play football under the noonday sun (what conscientious school, pray, would require students to play football under the noonday sun in the first place?), among other things, prompted the school to require mandatory counseling in a center recommended by the school’s guidance counselor — because, we were told, she might have some deep-rooted psychological or emotional problem.
We complied. But what did the counselor say after two sessions? She said, “But there’s nothing wrong with your daughter; she’s just a normal teenager.” And that’s a direct quote. And the counselor simply gave our daughter some writing assignments to email to her because, she said, she didn’t see the point in us spending all that time, driving back and forth between Antipolo and Quezon City, and money, when there’s really nothing wrong with our daughter. Ergo, just to comply with the required number of counseling sessions, the written “assignment.”
Ignorance can be such a dangerous thing. Your kid can have sun allergy and the school will tell you that she might be emotionally disturbed. In this day and age of talks about gaping holes in the ozone layer and the dangers of exposure to ultraviolet rays, it pays to know if the redness on your skin is common sunburn or if it is something more problematic. Sun allergy is not the figment of the imagination. It isn’t a common condition but it is very real. In the Mayo Clinic website, James T. Li, MD, explains:
In sensitive people, direct sun exposure can trigger an immune system response that activates inflammatory cells or proteins in the skin. The result may be an itchy, red rash or hives (solar urticaria). This reaction usually fades within 24 hours after sun exposure.
Solar urticaria is very difficult to diagnose. Daniel More, MD, a board-certified allergist and clinical immunologist who writes for the New York Times sister company About.com says:
A solar urticaria diagnosis cannot be made by a person’s history of symptoms alone, since other conditions, such as polymorphous light eruption and certain forms of porphyria, can also cause skin rashes with sun exposure. A diagnosis is made when the skin is exposed to various forms of light that can produce different spectrums, or wavelengths. This is a specialized test that is most often performed by dermatologists, who have the specialized equipment available for such testing. Sometimes a diagnosis can only be made with exposure to natural sunlight.
Worse, like most other allergies, there is no real cure. Antihistamines can prevent or reduce a reaction but the condition remains. Dr. More, however, also says, “It is possible to desensitize the skin with repeated exposures to sunlight so that hives will not occur with future exposures. This specialized form of therapy, which should only be performed by an allergist or dermatologist, typically only lasts for a few days, and therefore needs to be repeated frequently.” Possible but with no real guarantees. Still, if you know of any doctor who will be willing to sit under the sun with my daughter until the rashes break out, make a diagnosis, and repeat the procedure everyday, do let me know. My brother might be glad to hear about such doctor too.
P. S. My daughter is now in college, gets outstanding grades in P. E. (basketball, table tennis) in a school where P. E. classes are held in a covered gym.