Anaphylactic Reaction

An anaphylactic reaction is a severe allergic reaction that can happen when you come in contact with an allergen. Common allergens are medications, foods, and insect stings. The first time you come in contact with an allergen there is usually no allergic reaction, but the second time you come in contact with the allergen their can be an allergic reaction and in some cases an anaphylaxis. An anaphylactic reaction involves the whole body and is life-threatening. Fortunately, it can be treated and even avoided with preparation.

What allergens cause an anaphylactic reaction?

The most common causes of an anaphylactic reaction are:

  • Medications such as aspirin, anesthetics, antibiotics (especially penicillin), and pain relievers (such as ibuprofen)
  • Foods such as nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish, milk, and eggs
  • Insect stings
  • Latex

In the case of pollens and oral allergy syndrome it is rare to have an anaphylactic reaction. It is also possible to have an anaphylactic reaction and never find the cause or trigger allergen.

What are the symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction?

An anaphylactic reaction can cause symptoms within seconds and include:

  • Stomach pain or cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and/or Vomiting
  • Hives or rash
  • Swelling of the face, eyes, tongue, throat, and/or body
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety
  • Chest tightness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Cough
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Diarrhea
  • Nasal congestion
  • Slurred speech
  • Unconsciousness.

Death from an anaphylactic reaction can and usually happens if there is swelling in the mouth and/or throat making it impossible to breathe.

How can you diagnose an anaphylactic reaction?

An anaphylactic reaction can be avoided with the diagnosis of trigger allergens by an allergist. To help the allergist determine what your trigger allergens are keep a diary. The diary should list the symptoms you are having and possible allergens. For example:

“I have a rash on my arms and legs. The possible allergens I have come in contact with recently are a new laundry detergent, an amoxicillin prescription for an ear infection, and I tried wasabi for the first time.”

Make sure to take the diary to your allergist to help them identify the allergens that may cause an anaphylactic reaction. In some cases allergy testing may be required.

How do you treat an anaphylactic reaction?

An anaphylactic reaction is an emergency and needs immediate medical attention. Call 911 if you or someone you know comes in contact with a trigger allergen that has caused an anaphylactic response before OR are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above.

If you are with a person experiencing an anaphylactic reaction:

  1. Check the person’s airway for breathing using the ABC’s of CPR (airway, breathing, circulation).
  2. Call 911 if having trouble breathing or experiencing throat swelling.
  3. If the reaction is from a bee sting remove the venom by scraping the stinger off the skin using a fingernail or credit card. DO NOT USE TWEEZERS because it can release more venom.
  4. If the person has an emergency medication, such as an EpiPen, help them administer it. Do NOT give anything by mouth if they are having trouble breathing.
  5. Place the person in the most comfortable and effective position for breathing. Do NOT place a pillow under the person’s head if they are having trouble breathing because it can close the airway.
  6. Continue to watch the person’s airway, breathing, and circulation until help arrives.
  7. Help to prevent shock by having the person lie flat, position their feet above level of their heart by about a foot (12 inches), and cover them with a blanket. Avoid this position if the person is at risk for back, neck, or leg injury.

For information and classes about CPR or anaphylactic reaction training contact your local American Red Cross.

Can an anaphylactic reaction be prevented?

Preventing an anaphylactic reaction can be difficult but taking these steps can ensure proper treatment is provided and in many cases decrease the likeliness of an anaphylactic reaction occurring:

  1. Avoid trigger allergens that have caused or have the potential to cause an anaphylactic reaction. When eating out make sure to ask the waiter or check the restaurant’s website for any information regarding ingredients in their food. Many restaurants now offer alternative menus and dishes for people with allergies.
  2. If you are at risk for or have experienced an anaphylactic reaction it is best to wear a medical ID tag that lists your trigger allergen(s).
  3. Make sure you know what to do if you accidentally come in contact with your trigger allergen.
  4. Develop a “plan of action” for emergency situations. You may need the help of your allergist. Make sure your family and friends are aware of your “plan of action” and know how to treat an anaphylactic reaction if you are unable to take care of yourself.
  5. Always carry your emergency medications, such as an EpiPen, in your allergy kit if you have a history of severe allergic reactions. (Never use medications prescribed to anyone else because it may cause unwanted side effects

For information and classes about anaphylactic reaction training contact your local American Red Cross.



Disclaimer: The information contained in this site is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for a licensed physician. Please see your physician for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition. Click here to read the full disclaimer.
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