I Used to Be Allergic to Myself

By my junior year of high school, I had been diagnosed with too many different allergies to count. Peanuts, tree nuts, sun lotion, birch trees - my hypersensitivities ranged from moderate to severe, from common foods to trivial materials such as the stuffing in life jackets or the chemicals in bubble bath. But although I have had to use my Epi-Pen once or twice over the years, nothing could have prepared me for April of 2016, where I was told by my doctor that I had developed an allergy to myself.


I hadn’t noticed anything particularly wrong with my body until about two weeks before my junior prom. After a tennis match one afternoon, as I was packing up my rackets my teammate pointed to the side of my face and asked if I had forgotten sunscreen in that spot. Confused, I pulled out my phone camera, but with the bright sunlight and the dim screen I couldn’t see what she meant.


When I got home, I headed straight to the bathroom to take a shower, and that’s where I first saw it: a patch of discoloration on my skin that was about two inches thick starting from my right ear and ending by my jawbone.


After examining it for a moment with a frown, I shrugged and turned on the hot water, unconcerned. It was probably just a strange tan from playing tennis all day - surely it would be evened out in the next couple of days.


But the marking only got worse. After about a week, it was as if someone had taken an eraser to my skin and wiped away the pigmentation just in that spot, leaving neat little bumps in its wake. Even as my mother told me I was being dramatic and my boyfriend told me he could hardly notice it, I was convinced that I was suffering from vitiligo, the autoimmune disorder that famously caused dramatic patches of discoloration in celebrities like Michael Jackson and Winnie Harlow. But vitiligo was usually all over the body and face, not just in one clean area like my patch. So what was it?


Finally, with prom only a couple of days away, my mother took me to a dermatologist. The doctor looked at me for what seemed like only a single second and then smiled.


“You’re allergic to yourself,” he said, leaning back in his seat like he had solved a Rubix cube in just a few seconds.


My mother and I gaped at him.


“It’s nothing to worry about,” the doctor continued. “Your body will sort itself out on its own. But for the time being, you are technically allergic to yourself.”


Apparently, at some point in the past few weeks I had caught a virus, and like with any healthy immune system my body had conjured an attack response against it in order to protect me from infection. But the virus had similar epitopes (physical identifiers) as a certain enzyme my body already made to controlled melanin and skin pigmentation, leading my immune system to suddenly believe that my own cells were a threat to my body. So my immune system began attacking the cells near the lymph nodes on the right side of my face that were just trying to do their job, effectively lightening the tone of my skin in that specific area.


Crazy, right?


It was a relief to me that I wasn’t suffering from a more serious autoimmune disorder or deficiency and I was thankful that it was a one time thing and not a systemic problem, but it was also frustrating to find out that I would just have to wait for my body to correct its mistakes, leaving me with that light strip of skin for months. I went to prom with an inordinate amount of foundation on that side of my face, and spent the entire summer of 2016 coating the rest of my skin with hypoallergenic sunscreen in order to try to even out the coloring. It took until September, but eventually I couldn’t even tell that it had happened!


This entire experience was a completely bizarre occurrence, and although it gave me stress and insecurity for the months I dealt with it, on the bright side, since my reaction was so uniquely strong I am now in medical textbooks. So I used to be allergic to myself, but at least I got famous for it!