Anaphylaxis – What Is It?

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that affects two or more parts of the body at once, including your skin, mouth, stomach, lungs or heart. Often it occurs as a series of reactions. For instance, skin-related symptoms such as hives and swelling may appear first, followed by breathing problems or other internal symptoms. But anaphylaxis can also occur without any skin symptoms at all.

Common symptoms of anaphylaxis:

  • Skin: itching, hives, redness, swelling
  • Mouth: itching, swelling of lips and/or tongue
  • Throat: itching, tightness/closure, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing
  • Chest: shortness of breath, cough, wheeze, chest pain, tightness
  • Stomach: vomiting, diarrhea, cramps
  • Heart: weak pulse, dizziness, fainting, cardiac arrest
  • Other: feeling of impending doom, headache, itchy/red/watery eyes, nasal congestion

Common allergens that can set off anaphylaxis:

  • Foods, especially peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, milk and eggs
  • Stinging insects such as wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, bees, and fire ants
  • Latex, which can be found in household items from elastic waistbands to kitchen gloves
  • Medications such as antibiotics, seizure medications, muscle relaxants and aspirin

Anyone can develop a severe allergic reaction at any time. However, people with a history of asthma are at greater risk for anaphylaxis than other people. And someone who has had anaphylactic symptoms at least once is more likely to have another anaphylactic reaction.

With education and preparation, most deaths from anaphylaxis can be prevented. That’s why it’s important to see a board-certified allergist for an accurate diagnosis. The allergist will look at your family and medical history, your allergy symptoms, your physical exam and the results of allergy tests to identify allergens most likely to set off a reaction. Then the doctor will put together a personalized Anaphylaxis Action Plan that will help you prevent exposure to your triggers, recognize dangerous symptoms if they occur, and treat them effectively.

Recognizing anaphylaxis can be tricky because no two episodes are alike and some symptoms of anaphylaxis mimic symptoms of other illnesses. In addition, anaphylaxis often hits people who are not expecting it, either because it’s the first time they’ve ever had an allergic reaction or they don’t know they’ve been exposed to allergens.

The key to preventing serious problems from anaphylaxis – including death – is using an epinephrine auto-injector as soon as possible. In fact, virtually all deaths associated with anaphylaxis occur because epinephrine is not administered in time. People at risk for anaphylaxis should always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors, in case symptoms recur before medical help is available.

© 2016 Allergy and Asthma Network

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

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