Anaphylaxis: A Life-Threatening Allergic Reaction

anaphylaxis-5-638Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening medical emergency. Without prompt treatment it can lead to death very quickly.  However, symptoms usually get better with the right therapy, so it is important to act right away.  

Anaphylaxis is a severe whole body allergic reaction to an allergen.  An allergen is any substance that can cause an allergic reaction. 

After the first exposure to a substance such as bee sting venom, the person’s immune system becomes sensitized to it. When the person is exposed to that allergen again, an allergic reaction may occur. Anaphylaxis happens very quickly after the exposure.

Anaphylaxis can occur in response to any allergen.  It can occur at any time after an exposure even if there was no major reaction to previous exposures. Risk factors include a history of any type of allergic reaction to substances such as:

  • Medication and drug allergies
  • Food allergies (often shellfish, peanuts and garlic)
  • Insect bites/stings (bee’s and similar species)
  • Latex allergies

Symptoms develop quickly, often within seconds or minutes. They may include any of the following:

  • Hives and itchiness
  • Skin redness
  • Swelling of the face, eyes or tongue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Wheezing
  • Unconsciousness
  • Anxiety
  • Cough
  • Dizziness

If any of these signs of anaphylactic reaction are present, check the person’s airway, breathing, and circulation (the ABC’s of Basic Life Support). A warning sign of dangerous throat swelling is a very hoarse or whispered voice or coarse sounds when the person is breathing in air. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Calm and reassure the person.
  • If the allergic reaction is from a bee sting, scrape the stinger off the skin with something firm (such as a fingernail or plastic credit card). Do not use tweezers — squeezing the stinger will release more venom.
  • If the person has emergency allergy medicine on hand, help the person take or inject the medication. Avoid oral medication if the person is having difficulty breathing.
  • Take steps to prevent shock. Have the person lie flat, raise the person’s feet about 12 inches, and cover him or her with a coat or blanket.

Avoid triggers such as foods and medications that have caused an allergic reaction in the past. Ask detailed questions about ingredients when you are eating away from home. Also carefully examine ingredient labels.

People who know that they have had serious allergic reactions should wear a medical ID tag, as well as always carry and epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) according to your health care provider’s instructions.

For more information please visit the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: