At the most extreme end of the scale of allergic reactions is anaphylaxis. This severe allergic reaction can be life-threatening and should always be treated as a medical emergency.
Anaphylaxis typically occurs immediately, within minutes of exposure to the trigger and can quickly become life threatening. An anaphylactic reaction usually involves more than one part of your body – for example, your breathing may become difficult as the throat narrows, and the heart rate may quicken. Blood pressure may also drop and the skin may become red, or itchy.
Anaphylaxis is generally induced by allergens from three groups:
Food: The most common triggers are nuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. However, more than 130 foods have been recorded as possible triggers for anaphylaxis.
Insect stings: Stings from bees, wasps, and jack jumper ants (found in the southern states) are the most common insects to cause anaphylaxis. Ticks, green ants and fire ants can also trigger the reaction.
Medications: Both prescription and over the counter medications can cause allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. Antibiotics, analgesics and anticancer medications are common causes of drug allergic reactions.
Not all people who experience allergies are at risk of anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis remains a relatively uncommon reaction, but – given its severity – it pays to learn more about it, even if you do experience only mild allergic reaction symptoms.
What are the symptoms of anaphylaxis?
The symptoms of anaphylaxis can quickly become life-threatening and can include any one of the following:
Difficult or labored breathing
A swollen tongue or throat
Difficulty talking and a hoarse voice
Wheezing or coughing
Dizziness or collapsing
Becoming pale and floppy (in young children)
In some cases, anaphylaxis is preceded by less dangerous allergic symptoms such as:
Swelling in the face, lips or eyes
Hives or welts
Abdominal pain and vomiting (these are signs of anaphylaxis for insect allergy)
How do I know I’m at risk of anaphylaxis?
If you’ve experienced anaphylaxis previously or suspect you may be at risk, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Your doctor will normally ask a series of questions that may help to narrow down the list of likely causes such as foods or medicines consumed that day, or exposure to insects. This approach will also help to exclude conditions that can sometimes be confused with anaphylaxis, such as fainting, asthma or an epileptic seizure. If allergy is suspected, you’ll likely undertake a skin prick or blood test to confirm.
What happens if I’m at risk of anaphylaxis?
If you’re at risk of anaphylaxis, you’re going to need to seek ongoing medical support to help monitor your condition. As a starting point, you’ll need to undertake a range of tests and clinic examinations to make sure the exact trigger of the allergy is identified. Then, you’ll need to be referred to a clinical immunology/allergy specialist.
This specialist will work with you to develop a plan to help you manage your condition, including avoiding your allergens (where possible) and what to do if you do experience an anaphylactic reaction.
How do I treat anaphylaxis when it occurs?
As anaphylaxis is a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, it should always be treated as a medical emergency. Adrenaline (epinephrine) injected into the outer mid-thigh muscle is the first line of treatment for anaphylaxis. An injection of epinephrine will quickly work to reduce and reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
If you are diagnosed with an allergy that may cause anaphylaxis, you will be taught how to use an adrenaline (epinephrine) autoinjector, or Epipen. It’s important that you know how to use the Epipen, and your family members and friends should also be taught.