Severe allergic reactions can be debilitating for sufferers

Geraldine Harder leads "a secluded life," she says. She's been housebound for almost five years -- by necessity, not choice. Harder, 68, is allergic to ingredients in products that most people use every day without a second thought -- perfume, ma...

Geraldine Harder
Geraldine Harder shops early in the morning with her husband, Darol, in order to avoid others who may be wearing perfume, which can cause her to experience symptoms such as respiratory and memory problems. (Grand Forks Herald photo by Wade Rupard.)

Geraldine Harder leads “a secluded life,” she says.

She’s been housebound for almost five years - by necessity, not choice.

Harder, 68, is allergic to ingredients in products that most people use every day without a second thought - perfume, make-up, hair spray, fabric softeners, air fresheners, scented candles.

The McVille, N.D., woman takes great pains to avoid exposure to these products because preservatives and petroleum-based chemicals they may contain have such an impact on her.

Her health - and even her life -are at stake.   


Over the years, exposure to certain allergens has landed her in emergency rooms and hospitals.  

Once, she lapsed into a coma that lasted eight hours, she said.

Another time, while undergoing a dental procedure, she reacted to a common pain medication.

“My face blew up,” she said. “The dentist didn’t know what to do with me.”

Her allergist, who was travelling out of state, was unreachable.

Harder was transported to an emergency room where the doctor considered performing a tracheotomy, she said.

When her family rushed to her side, “the only thing they recognized was my clothes.”



Her friend Darlene Lofthus, 71, of McVille, also suffers from exposure to perfumes and other strong smells.

When exposed to these scents, “within an hour I’ve got a migraine headache,” she said.

She takes a prescribed pill and heads straight to bed. Getting right to sleep tends to help.

If the migraine is especially severe, her local doctor gives her an injection and she immediately returns home to sleep, she said. “It’s not fun.”

As a migraine sufferer for more than 30 years, she has learned that “the body adjusts to medications and, after you’ve taken one for a while, it doesn’t work as well,” she said. “I’ve been on 10 to 15 types.”

Lofthus also has gets migraine headaches in reaction to some foods and changes in the weather.

“I’ve learned through the years what to eat and what to avoid,” she said.

After trying numerous household products in an attempt to find some that wouldn’t cause a reaction, she has given up, opting now to use only vinegar and baking soda for cleaning.


“There are so many chemicals in the makeup of products. We’ve gotten so far away from natural things,” she said.

“I just feel that our families have (health) problems - especially children - that could be product-related.”

Change in lifestyle

Lofthus limits her contact with people to avoid exposure to strong scents.     

“Now that I’m retired, I’ve backed away from getting into groups of people. Every time I go out, I risk that.”

She picks up her mail at the local post office “between 10 and noon, when others are not there,” and buys groceries during the noon hour, the store’s quietest time of day, she said.

The problem has taken a toll on her social life.   

“What disappointed me the most is that you miss out on things. You pick and choose what you’re going to do,” she said.


“If it’s (an event with) a lot of women, you can almost guarantee you’re going to go home with a headache” from the perfume.

“But you have to live; you have to get out sometimes - but I run the risk.”

Harder plans out-of-town shopping trips so she and her husband arrive early in the day when stores have few, if any, customers.

With list in hand, they quickly select items and exit.

On such outings, “I wear a face mask at all times” for self-protection, she said. “We’re in and out.

“I don’t shop anymore. I purchase.”

As much as possible, Harder buys all-natural products. She sews clothing, curtains and tablecloths from 100 percent cotton fabric.

She looked everywhere to find bed sheets that wouldn’t cause an allergic reaction until she found a source for organic sheets.


‘More chemicals’       

Harder wants people to understand the dangers of perfume and other chemical-infused products, she said.

She runs the risk of respiratory problems, shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, dizziness, mood swings, mental confusion or memory loss.   

“There are so many more chemicals we come into contact with every day. You don’t even think about them and what they do to us.”

She and Darol take precautions to minimize risk. For example, they don’t subscribe to a newspaper or buy books because the ink triggers an allergic response.

“I can read but I don’t understand what I’m reading,” she says of the mental confusion that results. 

Harder secures the first appointment in the day at the hair salon and for medical and dental visits.

She avoids crowds, and no longer attends weddings and funerals.


“I think the worst is, I lose all common sense,” she said. “I smell the perfume and it’s like the brain is absent from my body…

“I do not have any idea what I am saying - or even remember what I have said. I just see the strange looks on people’s faces. You feel so stupid - and people think you’re stupid.

“I have embarrassed myself at funerals, weddings and other gatherings… If I start to not make sense, my husband says, ‘It’s time to go,’ and we do.”      

Early sign

As a young child in school, Harder remembers earning good grades but when tests were handed out - the paper still moist from mimeograph copying machines - she couldn’t recall the meaning of certain words.     

“I’ve had this (condition) my whole life, I just didn’t know it,” she said.

In tests conducted by a Grand Forks allergist that measured allergic reaction, “I went up to 93,” she said. “Most people’s high is 27.” 

In 1992, she was referred to a medical facility in Dallas that specializes in the testing and treatment of chemically sensitive adults and children.

Doctors there performed extensive testing to find the cause of her symptoms.    

“That was the first time I felt people knew me,” she said. “There were people who truly understood what I was going through.

“I felt like I had a new family. I felt like a real person.”

After returning from the Texas facility, she had to give herself 27 shots a week, she said.    

Harder can’t take shots anymore, however, because they contain preservatives to which she’s allergic, she said. 

To treat her condition, she takes oxygen twice daily and uses inhalers.

“You learn to live with it. A lot of people have a lot of disabilities,” she said. “This I can live with as long as I’m at home.”

Faith, family, friends

Her family has helped her to cope, Harder said. “I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

Her husband and sons “are very understanding of my allergies,” she said.

Their sons also have allergies but not as severe as hers.

Although she must stay indoors much of the time, she is grateful for “some very special friends who understand these problems and have stuck by me all these years,” she said.

She is also thankful for Nelson County Medical Health System in McVille where she has received “excellent care,” she said.   

Her Christian faith helps her handle the problems that allergies have imposed on her life, she said.

“If I didn’t have my faith, I don’t know what I would have done. That’s what holds me together - that, and my family and friends. That’s where I get my strength.” 

Harder reads a chapter a day from a well-worn Bible that “has lost its odor,” she said.

“It’s a difficult life,” she said, but she tries to find the humor in her situation.

“If you didn’t laugh about it, you’d go crazy.”       


   Knudson covers health and family. Call her at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572 ext.1107 or email .


Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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