By Allie Bahn
Chocolate eyes stare up at me, expectantly. “I want to pet you, trust me,” I whisper to the sweet Labrador retriever perched at my feet, his tail hitting the floor with an impatient thump. The more I reject him, the sadder those eyes become and the more determined he is to gain my love and attention.
He doesn’t understand that my severe animal allergies prevent me from enjoying his companionship.
Growing up in New England, I experienced only mild animal and environmental allergies and spent a significant amount of time around animals. They were part of my life, being the niece of a famous veterinarian, Dr. Stephen Kritsick. I would watch my uncle on “Good Morning America” discuss how to take care of family pets, and then I would go to my grandparents’ house and play with their schnauzer, a treasured family member.
My uncle started me horseback riding at eight. I was smitten from the start. The stable was a second home. I would usually leave with itchy, swollen eyes and red, itchy eczema patches on my arms. Antihistamines and cortisone cream would provide relief until I was back again. Riding was my escape through some challenging family times.
We rescued Abby, our family cat, when I was two. Abby was a sweet, black cat with a small white splotch under her chin. I would help with her care, but I didn’t spend much time directly interacting with her. Abby loved to lie in the sun under the windows and rarely went on the furniture or inside bedrooms. I remember occasional sneezes and eczema flare-ups, but no breathing issues.
In middle school, we decided to get a family dog, Lexi. I was mostly able to adapt. But around the beginning of high school, my symptoms worsened. That’s when I was finally diagnosed with environmental allergies, pet allergies and asthma.
It was my first introduction to using a quick-relief inhaler and taking maintenance medication. It helped my breathing but I still had difficulty staying for any length of time inside a home with pets other than my own.
During my first semester of college, I returned home for Thanksgiving and felt miserable. Nothing could have prepared me for the difficulty I had readjusting to Abby and Lexi. I still was on maintenance medication but had to take my quick-relief inhaler along with antihistamines and other allergy medications the entire vacation. I made an appointment with my allergist after that and from then on, I always packed allergy medications before returning home for visits.
In January 2015, I began allergen immunotherapy, also called allergy shots, to help decrease my sensitivity to animal and environmental allergens.
It’s a 5-year process — certainly not a quick fix, but hopefully beneficial in the long run. For me, immunotherapy involves going to my allergist once a week to get tiny amounts of allergens injected into my body. (For others, the process may differ; for example, some may start immunotherapy with twice-a-week shots.)
Immunotherapy is also an emotional commitment – one that I didn’t realize until I was sitting in the allergist’s office for my first round of shots, epinephrine on my lap in anticipation of a worst-case scenario: an anaphylactic reaction to the shot.
Immunotherapy also took an unexpected toll on my body. Each appointment, I would be given two separate shots in each of my arms, totaling four shots. I often left with nickel-sized spots on my arms, which sometimes turned into welts the size of golf balls and remained itchy for most of the week. In time, my reactions improved, however.
It has now been almost three years since I started immunotherapy. I remain just as determined now as I was when I began this process. I’ve even had a few experiences lately that reassured me I am making progress.
During a recent vacation, I went to Iceland with my mom. I hadn’t been horseback riding in years but my zeal to experience the black sand beaches by horseback outweighed my allergy concerns. I took my allergy medication and fully enjoyed the ride. Not needing my quick-relief inhaler signaled the immunotherapy shots were working, even though I’d never had a specific shot for horse allergens.
Another success story occurred when my cousins were in town visiting. Their family has four precious furry pups, so I always stayed away from their home. This time, I visited with my cousins for almost an hour without symptoms. My family was elated I was able to see them without any major breathing issues.
My Dream For the Future
I imagine walking through a dog park, petting any animal vying for my attention. I envision visiting friends without the necessity of pre-planned allergen medications. I picture holiday celebrations with dogs nuzzling up against me.
A few years into immunotherapy, I am increasingly optimistic this dream will become my reality.
Allie Bahn is Global Outreach and Education Coordinator for Allergy & Asthma Network. She has asthma, environmental allergies and food allergies. She blogs at MissAllergicReactor.com.
Reviewed by Andrea Jensen, CHES, AE-C