Mystery diagnosis: What would make my mom allergic to my kids?
August 18, 2011 9:11 AM   Subscribe

For the past two years, every (~8) time my mother and my immediate family (wife, three kids) have visited, my mother is struck with significant gastrointestinal distress somewhere between 12 and 84 hours later, most usually 60 hours (that is, 5 a.m. on the third morning), that lasts about two days. My mom is generally well and never suffers this ailment at any other time.

I know YANAD, and the next time it happens when we're in my mom's city she plans on going in to her doctor to get tests run, but everyone who's heard about it anecdotally finds it so baffling that I wanted to gather some unusual ideas that we might suggest to a doctor. It doesn't matter where we meet -- her house, our house or some third city. Our kids get clean bills of health from their pediatrician, including strep cultures. We don't use a consistent soap or detergent. Many people have suggested it resembles a stress reaction, but my mom insists she harbors no such stress.

The most recent time was the 12-hour instance, and it doesn't seem like anything could incubate so fast.

My 4-year-old can't overeat proteins without getting sick in the middle of the night -- some ketone problem that no one entirely understands. Other than that, we are medically unmysterious.

All suggestions are appreciated.
posted by blueshammer to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there some special meal or restaurant that the six of you ONLY consume/frequent during these visits?

And IANAD but like your mom, I can insist I am not under stress, but when I have any sort of out of character excitement or something very different is happening my body still completely betrays me and exacts some sort of mutiny. I compensate by sticking with small bland meals and attempting deep breathing, while assuring myself I am not under any stress (good or bad, it all ends up the same).
posted by pink candy floss at 9:19 AM on August 18, 2011

every time i travel i get this. i drink less water, i'm in uncomfortable clothes, i have to change my dietary routine. for me, traveling or having people visit hits all my IBS-C triggers.
posted by nadawi at 9:22 AM on August 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: My mom travels other places and visits other people/has other people visit, and doesn't get this. And she absolutely insists that her disposition toward us is no different than toward anyone else. And it happens when we visit her in her home, so it's not strictly a function of her travel. @pcf, I can't think of any such common dietary thread.
posted by blueshammer at 9:27 AM on August 18, 2011

I am in a long distance relationship, and something similar has happened to me, when my boyfriend visits - bad, sometimes stabbing, stomach pains that often come on in the middle of the night, lasting for hours or days. The doctor diagnosed reflux, gave me Prilosec, and it stopped. Physical stress responses might occur due to extremely happy as well as unpleasant events - just because your mom doesn't feel 'stressed' in the typical negative sense most people use the word doesn't rule out this being a stress response. But the doctor should be able to give a diagnosis regardless of whether she is in the middle of an attack or not. And taking medication before you meet up (if reflux is the case) would be more effective, and allow her to enjoy the whole visit, rather than starting it in the middle of an attack.
posted by aiglet at 9:33 AM on August 18, 2011

if she travels/hosts others and doesn't get it - well, then yeah, i'm guessing stressed and is covering it up (which will result in more stress and more GI issues).

is it possible she gets it at other times and is too embarrassed to tell you?
posted by nadawi at 9:33 AM on August 18, 2011

I'm like pink candy floss -- sometimes I'll feel just fine mentally, but my body still reacts to stress physically. (I also call it my body betraying me.)
posted by changeling at 9:34 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is she changing diapers and maybe not cleaning her hands well enough afterward? Not sure how old your kids are but if she never changes diapers any other time, would that explain it?

Alternately, are your kids putting poop germs everywhere, if they are potty-trained and not cleaning their hands well enough?
posted by cabingirl at 9:34 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

The fact that she doesn't feel particularly stressed by the visit on an emotional/conscious basis doesn't bar stress from making her ill on a physical level. I can tell you this from personal experience. Even good stress (making the visit fun) is still stress.

To support or rule out the stress theory, I'd look for a change in the time frame when the illnesses started happening. Was there a change in her life that might have caused her to have more general stress, or a change in your life that might have made things more stressful? Again, even good stress like having a baby could be a trigger.

Also, if you don't know where the ketones thing comes from, you might look into that. In general, new eating routines, which travel and hosting often involves, can cause problems if there's any dietary allergy or food-related ailment that her normal diet is set up to deal with.
posted by immlass at 9:36 AM on August 18, 2011

Not sure if this is helpful or not, but my grandad experiences something somewhat similar--his face swells for no apparent reason. It does happen when he's at home, though very rarely. However, if he comes to visit us in the US, it happens without fail at least once during his visit. It's been going on getting on for 20 years at this point and it's never been figured out.
posted by hoyland at 9:38 AM on August 18, 2011

I work with small children and know that they usually have bigger things on their mind than a really thorough hand-wash after using the bathroom. It could be that your mom is sensitive to some particular quirk of their intestinal flora, especially since she doesn't live in the same household as they do; twelve hours is plenty of time for something like that to incubate.
posted by corey flood at 9:39 AM on August 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

How "significant" is this distress, and what are the symptoms? Are we talking the runs, pain, or a sudden, massive, "two exits, no waiting" kind of stomach-bug?

If it's a sudden stomach-bug thing, my (vastly uneducated) hunch is that that'd be a physical thing -- i.e., some kind of germ or bacteria from your house or bug that she's allergic to -- but if it's milder than that, it may be a little psychosomatic.

Also, if she normally has a fairly consistent diet but she tends to "splurge" a little when you visit - i.e., if she eats mostly salads or something, but when you guys visit it's "whee, time for PIZZA and HOT DOGS and FRIED CHICKEN and CAKE!" -- that change can also play hob with one's insides to a mild degree.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:00 AM on August 18, 2011

Anecdotally, I knew someone with cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) who had a period where visits from one particular person regularly triggered an episode. Their episodes usually lasted two days. Is she 100% better as soon as the episode is over? I believe that's one of the characteristic signs of CVS. (Without knowing the specific symptoms she has I have no idea if this is even a fit, but it was the first thing I thought of for a specific person triggering a GI issue.)

posted by pie ninja at 10:03 AM on August 18, 2011

Nthing stress. I can never tell when I'm really feeling stressed, but my body sure can, with these exact same type of symptoms.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:05 AM on August 18, 2011

Going with Corey Flood: Kids are little germ-balls. The people around them generally toughen up & don't get sick, but someone who's immune system isn't ramped up to handle that can end up sick. This was brought home to me by a coworker who, with out fail, would get sick 2-3 days after her niece (whom she adored) visited. They visited on a fairly regular schedule, so it was pretty easy to track.
posted by Ys at 10:06 AM on August 18, 2011

What if it is the opposite of a stress reaction, meaning a so completely relaxed that your body gets ill reaction? Mr. Leezie gets this sometimes at the beginning of vacation. He's so stressed about getting to vacation that once we are there and relaxed, he gets a terrible headache as if his brain is struggling to let go of the stress. Perhaps your mom's manifests itself as gastro issues.

Alternatively, have you had your water tested? Maybe there is something in there that you and the family have built up an immunity to but your mom gets wolloped each time she is exposed to it.
posted by Leezie at 10:08 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Could it be some combination of kid germs and mental distraction or unconscious stress making her immune system less on-the-ball than it usually is?

Have you tried visits with just you and your wife and then one kid at a time to see if that narrows it down?
posted by bleep at 10:45 AM on August 18, 2011

Response by poster: This is all great, guys. Thank you very much. If anyone's got more, I remain all ears.
posted by blueshammer at 10:48 AM on August 18, 2011

Could also be a food intolerance, if there's something (or somewhere) you guys eat only on special occasions like that.

(I have obviously not subjected this to rigorous, double-blind experimentation but I get an upset stomach quite often when eating at a local chain sandwich place that shall remain nameless; other sandwich places and even other franchises in different cities do not appear to have any effect on me. The gut is a magical, mysterious place.)
posted by en forme de poire at 11:44 AM on August 18, 2011

Also, no reflection on your kids, but children in general are seething masses of germs. I know there was a point there when my niece and nephew had just started playgroup, when I used to visit them I'd be sure to come down with something new and exciting a few days after I got home. Also just going from one city to another can expose you to slightly different germs and bacterias and an older person sometimes can't fight off those sort of things so easily, I didn't even have age as an excuse.

If not that then stress can cause it. I've learnt if my hubby starts having tummy issues, then he's holding some stress about something in and its time for me to try and get him to talk about it. This can be good stress he almost ended up in the doctors the week before our wedding with dehydration from pooping so much.
posted by wwax at 11:55 AM on August 18, 2011

If it were just at your home, I'd ask if you have well or city water, and if the former, have you checked the connection to your septic lately.

But since it's anywhere you meet, it could be what others have said. Kids are part of a much larger pool of people (they're in contact with more people as a result of school) than most adults, especially adults who aren't around kids normally!

Being part of a large pool means you get exposed to and get ill from or asymptomatically carry more illnesses.

Does your mom get her annual flu vaccine? That could be the difference right there.

It could also be that she once got sick visiting you, and now her mind is conditioned to associate "visit family" with "bad GI problems." People are great at associating "got sick to my stomach" with whatever they ate or did just before it happened - recognizing some plants are a bad idea is a helpful trait. But it can generalize to whatever the context was around getting ill, and the association itself can cause illness.

Anecdotally, when my uncle was a kid he climbed a tree, fell out, and hit his head hard. He had eaten waffles that morning. Afterwards, the sight of waffles made him ill.
posted by zippy at 1:18 PM on August 18, 2011

"Many people have suggested it resembles a stress reaction, but my mom insists she harbors no such stress."

Stress does not have to be caused by something unpleasant. Stress to your body can be caused by something exciting and happy too. She can insist that's she's not stressed because she doesn't feel unhappy or uncomfortable in any way, but she is most likely experiencing STRESS when she sees her wonderful family that she doesn't see on a daily basis.
posted by molasses at 1:28 PM on August 18, 2011

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