Anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction that affects the entire body and is considered a medical emergency. This potentially life-threatening reaction can happen anywhere between seconds to minutes after exposure to the allergen. Exposure triggers a response from your immune system that can lead to shock and even death if it is not treated immediately.
Any substance you are severely allergic to can trigger anaphylaxis. The most common food culprits include nuts, shellfish, and eggs. Bee stings and other insect bites can cause anaphylaxis as well. Drug allergies are also common triggers; according to the World Allergy Organization, drugs may be responsible for as much as 20 percent of deaths from anaphylaxis worldwide.
Some less common triggers of anaphylaxis include exercise and latex.
Signs and Symptoms of Anaphylaxis
Anaphylaxis can cause a multitude of symptoms almost immediately after exposure to the trigger. The following are possible signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis:
- chest tightness
- trouble breathing or speaking
- feeling of a lump in the throat
- tongue swelling
- wheezing or a high-pitched sound when breathing
- feeling flushed or hot
- difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- facial swelling
- hives or rash
- changes in the color of the skin, such as pink and flushed, pale, or blue
- gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
Along with the symptoms listed above, a person may also experience severe anxiety or a feeling of impending doom.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis is crucial for anyone with a known severe allergy or those with a loved one with allergies. Avoiding the allergen is the only way to prevent the reaction. In some cases, however, the allergy is not yet known, making awareness of the signs and symptoms even more important. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, up to 50 percent of people worldwide who die from a severe insect allergy had no documented history of a previous reaction.
There are few known risk factors for anaphylaxis. It is believed that genetics may increase a person’s risk of this type of reaction. This is thought to be especially true for people with a family history of exercise-induced anaphylaxis.
People who suffer from allergies or asthma are also at an increased risk of anaphylaxis. If you have already experienced anaphylaxis, you are at high risk of it experiencing it again.
If you have a high risk of anaphylaxis, you can lower your risk of this type of severe allergic reaction by avoiding your known triggers. It’s also important that people at risk and their loved ones be prepared for possible emergency situations. Patients with severe allergies are generally advised to carry an epinephrine autoinjector at all times, and also ensure that both they and those close to them know how to properly use an autoinjector. An autoinjector is a device consisting of a concealed needle and syringe with one full dose of medication. When this is injected into the outer portion of the upper thigh, it can slow or stop the allergic reaction and potentially save a person’s life.