You may have experienced the typical symptoms of an allergic reaction: a runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, hives or bodily itching, and more. However, there is a much more dangerous type of immune response that requires urgent medical attention. This type of reaction is known as anaphylaxis.
Symptoms of Anaphylaxis
Anaphylaxis symptoms most commonly occur within minutes of exposure to an allergen, but it is possible that symptoms develop 30 minutes or more later than exposure. The symptoms of anaphylaxis can vary greatly and may differ from person to person or from situation to situation.
- Hives, itching, bodily swelling
- Very flushed or very pale skin
- Swelling, itching, or tingling of the tongue, of the lips, or in the throat
- Trouble swallowing, throat tightness
- A weak or rapid pulse, dizziness, fainting, confusion, bodily weakness
- Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, or chest pain
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain
A more severe form of anaphylaxis is known as anaphylactic shock. This is a complication that can occur during an anaphylactic reaction where the blood pressure falls dangerously low. When blood pressure falls this low, it is difficult for the body to receive an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients. This can cause sustained internal organ damage or cardiac arrest.
Causes of Anaphylaxis
When your immune system encounters a substance for the first time, it can decide to produce antibodies that defend against this foreign substance. While this is good if the substance is harmful, some people’s immune systems can overreact to substances that do not typically cause an allergic reaction.
Potential causes of anaphylaxis include:
- Food (such as peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, wheat, and/or soy)
- Certain medications (such as antibiotics, aspirin or other pain relievers, or intravenous (IV) contrast dye used in some imaging tests)
- Insect bites or stings, such as from bees, yellow jackets, wasps, hornets, and ants
- (more uncommonly) Physical activity, eating certain foods before exercising or exercising when weather is hot, cold, or humid
If you don’t know what triggers anaphylaxis, you can ask your allergist to discuss undergoing certain tests to help identify the cause or allergen. However, in some rare cases, the cause of an anaphylactic reaction may never be identified. This is called idiopathic anaphylaxis. Some things that may increase your risk of having an anaphylactic reaction include:
- History of previous anaphylactic reactions. If you have had anaphylaxis before, your risk of having an additional reaction increases. Future reactions have a chance to be more severe than the first reaction.
- History of allergies or asthma.
- History of certain other conditions, such as heart disease or mastocytosis (an abnormal accumulation of mast cells in the body)
Prevention and Treatment
If you or someone around you is experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, it is imperative that they immediately receive epinephrine and emergency medical treatment. Timing is key, and the sooner you or a loved one can get treatment, the better. Even if symptoms improve after the use of epinephrine, a visit to the ER is necessary in case anaphylactic symptoms return. It is important to take note of what symptoms you or a loved one may have during an anaphylactic reaction, as your allergist will typically ask for this information before making a diagnosis or requesting tests. The best way to prevent anaphylactic reactions is allergen avoidance. In individuals who have a history of severe allergic reactions, your doctor may recommend some of the following measures:
- Wear a medical alert necklace or bracelet indicating your specific allergy. This is especially important if you are allergic to any drugs.
- Keep an emergency medical kit with you at all times. You may discuss its specific contents with your doctor, but it must include a set of epinephrine autoinjectors (a 2 pack) that is up to date and has not expired.
- If you are allergic to stinging or biting insects, use caution around them. Cover exposed skin on your arms, legs, and feet, avoid scented products, avoid bright colors, and don’t drink sugary beverages while outdoors. Stay calm when near a flying stinging insect, and remove yourself from areas where stinging insects may be prevalent (such as dirt mounds where ants or hornets may live).
- If you are allergic to any foods, carefully read ingredient labels of the foods you buy and consume. In addition, when eating out, make sure to ask how each dish is cooked and ask about ingredients used. Even residual amounts of food you are allergic to can cause a serious reaction.
While carrying epinephrine autoinjectors with you is good practice, remember that this is an emergency medication and should be used as a last resort. Avoid exposure to your specific allergens as much as possible.
Next stepsIf you are interested in further discussion about your specific needs, Dr. Reshamwala is happy to see you and answer any questions you may have. Please call 512-382-1933 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment today! Book an appointment
Written by: Dr. Neha Reshamwala
NPI number: 1780874578
Page last reviewed: 03/20/21