How a Nearly Fatal Bee Pollen Allergy Triggered My Adult-Onset Asthma

From running half-marathons to being bedridden two days a week, Amy Horton shares how adult-onset asthma has changed her life. And it all started with an allergic reaction to bee pollen in a protein shake.

Amy Horton SelfieCourtesy Amy Horton

One in every 13 Americans has asthma, a respiratory condition that causes swelling in the airways.  Asthma symptoms include wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. It can range from mild to severe and, in some cases, can be life threatening There is no cure for asthma, but treatments can help prevent and deal with asthma attacks when they do happen.  There are six main types of asthma, including adult-onset asthma. It’s often thought of as a childhood disease, and it is more common in children, but about 20 million U.S. adults ages 18 and over have asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation.  One of these is Amy Horton, 41, a photographer and mother of three living in Dallas.  Here, she shares the experience that led to her diagnosis of adult-onset and allergic asthma and what living with asthma is like for her.

Anaphylactic shock from a protein shake

A protein shake. That one small thing started the allergic reaction that led to a near-death experience and, eventually, an asthma diagnosis that has changed the course of my entire life. Talk about a ripple effect.

Seven years ago, I was getting my regular post-workout protein smoothie at the gym when I made a split-second decision to go out of my comfort zone and asked them to add bee pollen.

I’d heard it was good for energy and some chronic health conditions. I figured I’d give it a whirl.

Turns out I’m allergic to bees—deathly allergic.

Up until then, I wasn’t aware I was allergic to anything, so it was a terrifying surprise when my throat started to close up while I was driving home.

I went into anaphylactic shock, a condition where your airways swell shut and can be fatal if not treated immediately.

Fortunately, I was able to get prompt medical care, but I was told to see an allergist immediately to figure out what was happening.

An allergy-induced asthma diagnosis

The doctor tested me for a variety of asthma triggers and told me I was in “the allergy big leagues.”

Unfortunately, there is no trophy for this win, unless you count the EpiPen I now have to carry with me at all times.

Since then, I have developed moderate, uncontrolled allergy-induced asthma. This means that not only do I have to worry about having an allergic reaction to something, I also have to be prepared for the allergies to trigger asthma attacks.

While I do have some identifiable triggers—in addition to bees, dust and pollen are big ones—sometimes the attacks seemingly come out of nowhere, which makes this condition even more frightening and frustrating.

What an asthma attack feels like

Asthma attacks are one of the most frightening things I’ve ever experienced. They have mostly happened to me while I’ve been running outside.

My nose will suddenly start to run, and then I start sneezing. That’s when I know something bad is coming.

It often progresses into a full asthma attack. I start wheezing audibly, and I feel like I can’t get a breath in because my chest feels like it’s full of fluid.

Then the panic sets in; I know I have only a short amount of time to get somewhere to get help.

If I pass out alone, I could die. This fear is very real.

Even when I do have a good day and try to exercise, I end up worrying the whole time, second-guessing myself, and scanning my body for signs of an impending attack.

Before the fateful protein shake, I was an avid runner, completing many races, including three half-marathons.

Now, I struggle to run even for short distances. And I never push myself outdoors anymore. I miss running so much!

When trying to breathe all day becomes exhausting

It’s not just running that’s become incredibly difficult. Asthma has affected my ability to work, to parent, and to do everyday activities.

Over the past two years, I have spent at least two days every week in bed, unable to live a normal life.

I work as a photographer and I love my job, but a terrifying incident has made me cut back on the type and number of jobs I take.

A couple of years ago, I was shooting a wedding, running around during the reception while everyone was dancing, when I suddenly felt an asthma attack coming on.

I’ve gotten great at hiding my condition, but I was terrified at that moment. Thankfully, it ended up being a relatively mild attack, and I was able to take care of it myself.

I ran to the bathroom, popped a Benadryl, used my rescue inhaler, and then rested until it passed.

I did finish out the night, but it really scared me, and I’ve had to be much more cautious about my work.

It’s also affected my family. My kids have had to learn that some days I’m not going to be able to be engaged and interact with them because I’m so worn out and mentally drained.

People don’t understand that when you have asthma, simply trying to breathe all day is exhausting.

My current treatment plan

Once a day, I take montelukast (Singulair). Twice a day, I use an antihistamine/steroid nasal spray. And every night before bed, I take an antihistamine.

I’m in the process of trying to figure out what steroid will work the best for me.

Steroids are the front-line treatment for asthma because they quickly decrease the inflammation, allowing your airways to open back up.

They work, but they come with some pretty potent side effects, especially when you need them long-term. Some people have heart palpitations, headaches, nausea, and weight gain.

I’ve tried six different steroids so far and haven’t found one that I really like, but I’m working with my doctor on which one to try next, and I am hopeful.

I’ve also tried immunotherapy shots, injections that are supposed to train your immune system not to overreact to allergy triggers.

I did them every week for almost a year, but when the Covid-19 pandemic happened, the office shut down. The shots are only effective if you are consistent, so all my progress was lost.

I’m considering whether it’s worth it to start the program again because I only saw a slight improvement.

The will to keep fighting asthma

As an adult with asthma, my experience is different from people who were diagnosed as children because I can see exactly what asthma has taken from me.

It has not only stolen my ability to enjoy the things and activities I once cherished, but also it has robbed me of my confidence and my feeling of safety.

I am afraid every single day that I’m going to wake up and not be able to function.

It steals time I could be spending with my family. Instead, I’m stuck in my room, feeling like I’m living half a life.

Dealing with asthma is as much mental as it is physical. I’ve learned that every day I have to wake up and make a conscious decision to keep trying to enjoy life and to look for those moments of happiness.

Thanks to my medications, my asthma is better than it was. But it’s still not completely under control. I have to find a way to live with both joy and fear at the same time.

It’s a daily struggle, and some days are better than others. There are days where I don’t know if I have the will to keep fighting, but I refuse to give up. I refuse to let asthma take that from me too.

—As told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen has been covering health and fitness for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 13 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She teaches fitness classes in her spare time. She lives in Denver with her husband, four children, and three pets.