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Staying Active and in Control Despite Their Allergies

Meet four people with allergies who combine medication, alternative therapies, and the right attitude to maintain control over their lives.

Liz Erk: Runner, Rower, Skater

Liz Erk never believed she was strong enough, fast enough, or tough enough. A runner in her youth, she would quickly run out of breath, wheezing and panting for air. The same thing happened when she joined the rowing team at Northwestern University.

"I used to beat myself up," says Erk, 31, of Boston. "I just thought I was out of shape."

Fitness wasn't the problem. The same allergies that caused Erk to feel as if she was suffocating when she was near a cat also affected her athletic performance. Her whole family, in fact, is challenged by a bevy of allergens: cats, trees -- particularly pine -- dust, and pollution. "I have memories of visiting relatives with cats and we'd have to time the visits," she says. "As I got to be 10 years old, I couldn't breathe around cats. It was not a lot of fun."

As she grew into adulthood, her passion for activity was often curtailed by unpleasant allergy symptoms that made athletics and even socializing a challenge. Instead of retreating indoors, though, she decided to tackle the problem head on.

First came the allergy medication, which helped ease her difficulty with breathing and relieve her asthma symptoms. Next, she turned to acupuncture, which provided more relief. Soon she noticed a marked improvement. The only exception was when the foliage changed each fall and spring.

She still had a problem with cats, but then ironically fell in love with a kitten named Mia. A doctor told her to get rid of the furry feline, but she refused. Then a friend gave her some encouraging advice: Making a kitten part of your home, her friend said, might allow your system to develop immunity to the allergens as the cat matures.

So she did it, and it worked -- perhaps too well, she chuckles. Erk now owns 10 cats and volunteers at a cat shelter in her spare time. She even upgraded to a three-bedroom home specifically so her cats would have room to roam. An activity that she once considered "virtual suicide" has now become an integral part of her life and lifestyle. No more wheezing. Her eyes no longer swell shut when she hears a "meow" and the cat nuzzles her. She even credits fighting against her cat allergy with improving her social life. She no longer shies away from visiting friends who have pets.

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