About ten years ago, my father had a near death experience (NDE). It wasn’t caused by a car accident, heart attack, or any other sort of traumatic experience. His NDE was the result of a single bee sting; no different from the ones we’ve all had countless times. He collapsed to the ground off his bike and was subsequently rushed to a nearby hospital. Anaphylaxis set in, and his throat nearly closed shut. At first, the nurses disregarded his condition. However, once they measured his blood pressure, they sprung into action, eventually restoring his health.
Of course, anyone who has a wasp or bee allergy has heard these types of horror stories and has taken necessary precautions to avoid these circumstances. However, in my father’s case, he had no idea that he was allergic to bees. He had been stung many times before (as a consequence of working outdoors his entire adult life), and never experienced such a severe reaction. In fact, nearly half of all people who die from bee sting anaphylaxis did not know that they were allergic to bee stings (http://www.webmd.com/allergies/understanding-bee-sting-allergies-basics). So, how do you just become allergic to bees? What should you do if you suddenly find yourself reacting severely to a bee sting? And who should be worried about becoming allergic to bees?
Put bluntly, anyone can become allergic to anything, anytime. Even my father, about 40 years old at the time, suddenly became allergic to bee stings, seemingly over night. The primary suspect is a chemical called melittin, which stimulates nerve endings of nerve receptors in the skin. Injection of melittin into a normal person’s body is followed by a sharp pain that lasts a few minutes, which then gives way to a dull ache. In other words, you’ll heal before you’re married. However, if the melittin circulates your blood stream and finds antibodies associated with cells on your vital organs, these cells will begin to release massive amounts of histamines, and soon your blood pressure drops and fluid builds in your lungs (http://www.wvu.edu/~agexten/wildlife/bees.htm). These symptoms, collectively called anaphylaxis, can be life-threatening if not treated.
Luckily, there’s a relatively easy solution to anaphylaxis. Injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) will usually reverse any ill-effects of a bee sting within seconds. Epinephrine works by acting on receptors on blood vessels to increase blood pressure.
Image courtesy of http://www.myallergycare.com/
As far as genetics are considered, people whose parents are allergic to bees are not necessarily allergic to them as well. It is true, however, that if your parents are allergic to bees, there is a great risk that you are allergic to something as well; but not necessarily bees (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AllergiesOther/story?id=4522443). It’s important to note that allergies arise from a combination of genetics (from your parents) and a certain exposure to something in the environment.
Every so often, I receive a group text from my mother to all her children. One day last week, we all got this lovely mugshot of my father with the caption “SEND HELP!:
At least he can have a sense of humor about it.