By Allie Bahn, as told to Hallie Levine
I was diagnosed with asthma at 14. Looking back, there were early signs. I frequently went horseback riding as a child, and while the stable felt like a second home, I’d leave with itchy, swollen eyes and red eczema patches on my arms. My aunt and uncle also had a dog who shed a lot. Every time I spent the night there, I’d have trouble sleeping because my chest felt so tight.
At first, my doctor said it was sports-induced asthma, because I’d only get symptoms when I was running. But when my symptoms worsened, I did allergy skin testing. I was finally diagnosed with allergies to pollen, grasses, and dust, as well as dogs and cats. The latter was a problem, as we had one of each -- even though our dog, a Tibetan terrier, was supposed to be hypoallergenic.
My doctor gave me two inhalers. One was Intal, which was for quick-relief if I had an asthma attack. It contained cromolyn sodium, an anti-inflammatory agent, and is no longer on the market. The second was Advair, a maintenance inhaler I used two times a day to help keep my asthma under control. It contains fluticasone propionate, a steroid that helps lung inflammation. It also contains a substance known as a long-acting beta2-agonist, which relaxes airway muscles. These made breathing a little easier, but I still had difficulty staying for any length of time inside a home with pets other than my own.
A New Beginning
When I went away to college, my symptoms improved immensely, probably because there were no furry animals around. But when I returned home for Thanksgiving my freshman year, I felt miserable. I had a very hard time readjusting to Abby, my family’s sweet black cat, and Lexi, our terrier. I had to use my quick-relief inhaler almost every day, on top of my maintenance one. I also needed to take the antihistamine Zyrtec the entire time. Still, my symptoms were so bad I left for a night to stay at a friend’s house that was pet-free.
After college, I lived abroad for a while, and I was able to avoid dogs and cats, which were the main triggers of my asthma. While I’m allergic to other indoor and outdoor allergens, they just cause mild symptoms like itchy eyes and sneezing. But when I moved back to the States, I found that I was avoiding visiting my parents because of my allergic reactions. So in January 2015, I talked to my allergist and decided to begin allergen immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots. I hoped it would lower my sensitivity. It was a 5-year process and involved visiting my allergist once a week to get tiny amounts of allergens injected into my body. But as sensitive as I was to pet dander, I felt the commitment was worth it.
Immunotherapy does take a toll on your body. After each appointment, when I was given two separate shots in both arms, I’d sit and watch nickel-sized spots turn into itchy welts the size of golf balls. Over time, that response lessened, but the shots are still a big commitment, both physically and emotionally. After every round of shots, you sit in the allergist’s office for 30 minutes with an EpiPen on your lap in case you end up in the worst-case scenario of an anaphylactic reaction. Thankfully, that’s never happened to me.
Life-Changing Results -- and Hope for the Future
After about 2 1/2 years, I noticed a real difference. In 2017, for example, I went to Iceland with my mom. I hadn’t been horseback riding in years, but the urge to ride on the black sand beaches outweighed my allergy concerns. Interestingly enough, I took my allergy medication and was fine, even though I’ve never had a specific shot for horse allergens. I didn’t need my quick-relief inhaler even once. Then a few months later, I visited my cousins, who have four dogs. I was able to stay in their house for almost an hour without any symptoms.
I took a break from my allergy shots because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but once that eases, I will resume them again. Ultimately, my dream is to have a life with furry pets in it. I love cats and dogs. I want to be able to walk through a dog park and pet them all, or visit friends without having to map out a pre-planned allergy medication regimen. I want to be able to cuddle with a family member’s dog without worrying that I won’t be able to breathe. With allergy shots, it looks like this may be able to become a reality.
Allie Bahn, 37, an allergy and asthma advocate and teacher in Philadelphia who also runs the blog Miss Allergic Reactor.