Someone with severe allergies can be at risk for a sudden,
potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called
. This reaction can seem scary - a person may feel like his or her
throat is closing or may faint, for example. But the good news is
that, with the right action, it can be treated.
Anaphylaxis isn't common. But some people with allergies are
more at risk than others. So if you have allergies (or a friend or
family member does), it's good to know about anaphylaxis and be
Signs of Anaphylaxis
As with other allergies, anaphylaxis can trigger symptoms in any
of these four body systems:
- gastrointestinal system
- respiratory system
- cardiovascular system
So how can people tell if an allergic reaction is actually an
emergency? One clue is if it happens in two or more of these
systems - hives on the skin, for example, together with stomach
Here are the most common signs that a person who has been
exposed to an allergen might have anaphylaxis:
- difficulty breathing
- tightness in the throat or feeling like the throat or airways
- hoarseness or trouble speaking
- nasal stuffiness or coughing
- nausea, abdominal pain, or vomiting
- fast heartbeat or pulse
- skin itching, tingling, redness, or swelling
Dealing With a Serious Reaction
Anaphylaxis requires immediate treatment. It can get worse very
quickly. If you have a known allergy and start to have a reaction,
call 911 or immediately go to the nearest emergency room. Let
friends know about your allergy so they can help you, if
During anaphylaxis, allergic chemicals are released into the
blood. These cause the types of symptoms mentioned above. Doctors
usually want people with life-threatening allergies to carry a
. Epinephrine works by working against those symptoms. For example,
it decreases swelling and raises blood pressure.
Because epinephrine has to get into the bloodstream as fast as
possible in an emergency, it needs to be given in injection form.
This isn't as scary as it sounds, though - there's no big
needle and plunger involved. Instead, scientists have developed an
auto injector about the size of a large pen that's easy to
carry and use.
If you need to carry epinephrine, your doctor will show you how
to use it. If you start to have difficulty breathing, tightness in
your throat, or feel faint, or if you have allergic symptoms in
more than one of the body systems mentioned above, it's time to
give yourself epinephrine right away. You may want to take
over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines as well - but they won't
work alone. OTC antihistamines are never a replacement for
epinephrine in life-threatening reactions.
After using an epinephrine auto injector, go to a hospital
emergency room immediately. Sometimes a person has a second wave of
symptoms (called a
). So the hospital will observe you for at least 4 hours to be sure
you are OK and to give you additional treatment, if needed.
Serious allergies can sound scary. But the good news is
they're a lot easier to recognize and treat nowadays than in
the past, thanks to greater awareness and the availability of
Hemant P. Sharma, MD
Date reviewed: January 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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