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January 30, 2023

What is anaphylaxis and how can it be avoided?

Adult Health Allergies

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Many kinds of allergic reactions are more annoying than harmful. Not anaphylaxis (pronounced an-uh-fil-LAX-is). If not addressed promptly, it can cause a potentially fatal condition called anaphylactic shock.

What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction involving the entire body. Like other allergic reactions, anaphylaxis occurs when the immune system reacts to a substance as if it’s a threat. Its severity, however, can make it fatal. Approximately 1,500 people die of anaphylaxis annually in the U.S.

Causes of anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis usually happens within minutes of exposure to an allergen. Sometimes, however, it can take 30 minutes or longer to occur. In rare cases, it may not happen until hours after the exposure.

The allergens most likely to trigger anaphylaxis are foods, especially peanuts; medications; and venom from insect stings. Other triggers can include exposure to latex and, in rare cases, exercise. However, exercise-induced anaphylaxis is usually triggered by medication, alcohol, or certain foods consumed before engaging in physical activity.

You’re at risk for anaphylaxis if you have:

• Previously experienced anaphylaxis
• Allergies or asthma
• Family members or ancestors who have experienced anaphylaxis

Allergy testing can help identify or confirm any potential risk factors.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis

Here are the signs that someone may be having an anaphylactic reaction:

• Itching, hives, redness, and swelling of the skin
• Sneezing and a stuffy or runny nose
• An itchy mouth and swelling of the lips and tongue
• Trouble swallowing, an itchy or tight throat, and swelling in the back of the throat
• Shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest pain or tightness
• Cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea
• Dizziness, a weak pulse, or unconsciousness

If it’s not addressed rapidly, anaphylaxis can stop your heart or cause you to stop breathing. Either can lead to death or cause brain damage, kidney failure, or arrythmias and other heart problems.

What to do when anaphylaxis occurs

If you experience anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately. While waiting for first responders to arrive, lie down in a comfortable position with your legs slightly raised. This will keep blood flowing to your vital organs.

If you’ve been stung by an insect, use something firm like your fingernail or a credit card to scrape the stinger off your skin. Don’t squeeze the stinger, that can release more venom.

If you’ve been prescribed an epinephrine injection device, use it. Epinephrine injections should be administered in the middle of the outer side of the thigh, as shown here.

Even if you’ve received a dose of epinephrine, you should still go to an emergency room after experiencing anaphylaxis. You should also ask someone to stay with you for 24 hours to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Preventing or avoiding anaphylaxis

If you’re at risk for anaphylaxis, you need to avoid any foods or medicines to which you’re allergic. Make sure any medical personnel you deal with know what medicines you’re allergic to. If touching an ingredient can trigger an allergic reaction, it’s important that everyone preparing your food is aware of your allergy.

If you’re allergic to insect bites or stings, cover your skin outdoors. In late summer and early fall, when insects are most active, you should avoid:

• Drinking from open soft drink cans
• Wearing bright colored clothing with flowery patterns
• Using sweet-smelling perfumes, hairsprays, or lotions

If you or your child are at risk for anaphylaxis, carry an allergy list with you. You also should carry an emergency kit with an epinephrine injector and make sure you and your friends know how to use it.

Be prepared, not fearful

Being at risk for anaphylaxis can be nerve-wracking. Being the parent or guardian of an at-risk child can be even more stressful. You have to be aware of the triggers and how to avoid them. You also need to be ready to deal with anaphylaxis quickly should you or your child experience it.

Fortunately, awareness of anaphylaxis and how to help people at risk for it has grown. Researchers are also currently working on therapies to reduce the severity of, if not eliminate, food allergies. As a result, navigating society when you’re at risk for anaphylaxis is easier than it used to be, and should get easier in the future.

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