Most often, anaphylaxis symptoms develop within minutes of exposure to an allergen. However, they can emerge a half-hour or more later. Signs of anaphylaxis vary greatly and may include:
- Hives, itching
- Flushed or pale skin
- Swollen tongue, throat, or lips
- Trouble swallowing, throat tightness
- Weak pulse
- Coughing, wheezing
- Chest tightness
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or cramps
- Dizziness, fainting, confusion, or weakness
- Low blood pressure
- Sense of “doom” just before the reaction
Anaphylactic shock is a complication of anaphylaxis in which blood pressure falls dangerously low. The patient goes into shock because blood struggles to circulate, meaning the body gets deprived of oxygen and nutrients. Internal organ damage and cardiac arrest can result from this.
The first time you’re exposed to an allergen, your immune system may decide to mount a defense against that substance. Upon a subsequent exposure (may not be the very next time), your immune system goes haywire releasing chemicals to fight off the perceived invader. An anaphylactic allergic response affects the entire body and is so severe it can be dangerous.
Food allergies that can lead to anaphylaxis include peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, etc.), eggs, milk, wheat, soy, and shellfish. Medication triggers include penicillin, muscle relaxants, and anti-seizure medications, as well as aspirin, ibuprofen, and other NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Less common triggers are insect allergies (bee wasp, yellow jackets, hornets, and fire ants), pollen, and latex.
Food is the most frequent cause of anaphylactic reactions in children, while adults tend to experience the dramatic allergic response to medications.
Diagnosis & Treatment Options
If someone appears to be having a severe allergic reaction, time is of the essence. Anaphylaxis requires an epinephrine injection and emergency medical treatment (call 911). Even if epinephrine is administered and symptoms improve, head to the ER in case symptoms reoccur.
During the actual anaphylactic reaction, a diagnosis is made based on symptoms. Once the patient recovers, skin testing and/or blood testing can help confirm the allergen that caused the reaction if it is unknown.
In patients with known severe allergies, allergen avoidance can be life-saving and should be the top priority. Epinephrine is the preferred treatment and must be carried at all times. It should be administered immediately at the first sign of anaphylaxis.
People with a history of allergic reactions, whether or not they were anaphylactic in nature, may be at a greater risk of future anaphylaxis. A family history of asthma or anaphylaxis also increases the odds of a future severe allergic reaction.
Greater Austin Allergy’s specialists have extensive experience and training in the diagnosis and treatment of anaphylaxis. We take it extremely seriously and will discuss preventive measures and emergency procedures. When you leave our office, we will ensure you are comfortable with the anaphylaxis action plan we create together.
Anaphylaxis and Other Allergic Reactions Facts
Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine
Up to 20% of anaphylactic reactions are idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown.
Source: Food Allergy Research & Education
Approximately 20-25% of epinephrine injections given at school involve students whose food allergy was unknown at the time.