Last Sunday I stopped by my local health food store and asked the juice guru behind the counter to whip up a potion that would dissolve a headache derived from allergies.
“You need bee pollen,” she told me.
The juice guru knows her stuff, so I thoughtlessly let her mix me the drink. I sipped and shopped, finishing about a quarter of the pollen-infused juice when it hit me: I am not only allergic to pollen, I’m allergic to bees—I’ve been rushed to the emergency room three times for stings from my ankle to my tongue. By the time I reached the checkout aisle, my body was undergoing a hostile takeover. The symptoms were familiar: My throat started to close, my breathing became constricted, and by the time I drove home, it was a matter of minutes before I was vomiting in the toilet. After the first round, I called Poison Control and a nice man named Damon urged me to go to the ER. I couldn’t because another wave of nausea hit me and I was hunched over the toilet once again.
Vomiting isn’t fun, but I was oddly fascinated by what was taking place in my body. How could a few pollen grains be so poisonous? When I finally recovered I called Dr. Adela Taylor, a Mayo Clinic allergist, who explained what happens during an “Immediate Hypersensitivity Reaction,” which can be fatal.
“An allergen is any substance that can cause an allergic reaction,” she told me. “Allergens are typically proteins, but large sugar molecules can set a person off, too. The body recognizes this protein as foreign and starts making the antibody Imminoglobulin E (IgE), which attaches to cells and causes the release of certain chemicals that cause all the symptoms like itching, hives, difficulty breathing, nausea, and the swelling of the throat and tongue. It’s a cascade type of thing,” she said. “Basically, if someone is allergic, her balance between being able to tolerate foreign proteins and having immunity is out of whack. People who are prone to allergies, are prone to many allergies.”
What caused the reaction for me this time, Taylor told me, had nothing to do with bee venom and everything to do with the large dose of flower, tree, grass, and weed pollen I had ingested.
“You got a concentrated dose,” she told me. “Normally people don’t have such strong reactions to bee pollen.”
In developed, Western countries, 15 to 20 percent of adults suffer from the most benign form of allergy, rhinitis (a runny, stuffy nose), while roughly 2 percent have a venom allergy. Annually in the U.S., 40 to 100 people die from a stinging insect allergy.
Taylor recommends that anyone who suspects he may have a food, medicine, or stinging insect allergy see an allergist. For a food or stinging insect allergy, she also recommends carrying an Epipen (a pre-measured shot of epinephrine), wearing a medic alert bracelet that identifies the allergy, and programming “In Case of Emergency” (ICE) numbers into a cell phone so that medics know who to contact. Taylor also recommends carrying Benadryl Allergy Quick Dissolve Strips, the kind that can be placed inside the cheek, so that if someone is suffering a reaction, he or she won’t choke on a pill or aspirate on liquid. Finally, she recommends creating an allergic reaction plan so that you and everyone around you will quickly react in case of an emergency.
During my bee pollen episode, I made my second almost-fatal mistake of the day by taking the wait-and-see approach.
“With all my patients I would rather they call 911 and go to the ER and be told it’s passing, rather than have the outcome be worse,” Taylor says. “If you think ‘I think things are going to be ok,’ your throat may close off completely and then you’ll need a tracheostomy. You don’t want your symptoms to progress to that.”