Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction triggered most commonly by food or medicinal allergies.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction. It can progress very quickly and the signs, symptoms and triggers are not the same for everyone. Common triggers are insect stings, food, medication, latex and sometimes exercise. In rare cases, there is no immediate known cause, and a qualified health care provider should be consulted to help determine the reason for the idiopathic reaction.
Anaphylaxis occurs when the body perceives the trigger as an immediate threat and starts creating antibodies to protect itself. The antibodies cause the release of histamines which produce the immediate symptoms of an allergic reaction including, but not limited to, itching, hives, swelling of the face or hands, coughing and throat tightness.
People who have had a prior anaphylactic reaction are at risk, as well as those who have experienced a mild reaction to allergies. Anaphylaxis produces different symptoms in different people and can often behave differently for the same person even if they’ve had a previous reaction. Much like a mild allergic reaction to food, insect sting or other trigger, anaphylaxis can occur at any time in life.
Common Triggers for Anaphylaxis
- Food: peanut, soy, egg, tree nuts and/or peanuts, wheat, mustard seed, seafood, milk
- Medications: over-the-counter and prescription drugs
- Insect stings: yellow jackets, bumblebees, hornets, fire ants and wasps
- Latex: common in gloves, condoms, balloons, pacifiers, bandages
- Exercise: very rare
Signs and Symptoms of Anaphylaxis
- Skin: hives, rash, itching, swelling of the lips, tongue or palate
- Respiratory: coughing, wheezing, trouble swallowing, throat tightness
- Cardiovascular: shock, weak pulse, fainting, dizziness
- Gastrointestinal: vomiting, diarrhea
- Other: headache, anxiety, metallic taste
The symptoms of anaphylaxis may occur immediately (after an insect sting) or hours later (often with medication) so it is important to have a plan, particularly if you’ve previously experienced a severe allergic reaction.
- Call 911: Explain to the operator that you or someone else might be experiencing an anaphylactic reaction.
- Try to remain calm or help the person you’re with remain calm so the fight-or-flight sensation does not exacerbate the problem.
- Administer epinephrine in the form of an injectable syringe or pen. Avoid giving oral medication.
- If the reaction is from an insect sting, scrape the stinger away from the skin. Do not use tweezers as this may release more venom in to the skin.
- Lie flat to avoid shock. If assisting, help the person lie flat and cover with a blanket or coat.
Schools, camps and workplaces should all be aware of any allergy you may have so they can accommodate you. Wearing a medical bracelet that informs people of the allergy will be very helpful if you become unconscious. Carrying a list of current medications is also helpful to EMS. Teach someone who is around you how to administer epinephrine. The pens usually come with a demo so the technique can be mastered.