Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction. It occurs when someone is exposed to an allergen and their body generates an extreme shutdown response. The immune system goes into overdrive and takes more precautions than necessary, resulting in a loss of normal functioning. The most common triggers are food allergens such as peanuts, insect allergens such as bees, and medication allergens such as penicillin. Anyone who has an allergy is at risk, but those with a family history of an anaphylactic response as well as those with asthma are more likely to experience this reaction. People with these types of allergies may experience anaphylaxis upon exposure even if their past allergic reactions have been very mild.
A typical anaphylactic reaction may begin within minutes after exposure to the allergen, although in some cases the reaction may be delayed for up to an hour. Symptoms may begin with itching and hives and progress to breathing problems, clammy skin, swelling of the lips and face, vomiting, and unconsciousness. Low blood pressure and a low pulse usually accompany this reaction. The body eventually goes into a state of shock known as anaphylactic shock.
When someone is experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, it is very important that they seek emergency medical attention right away. If left untreated, it could result in unconsciousness or even death. Although possible, death from anaphylaxis is very uncommon. Death is preventable with quick and proper medical attention.
Treatment usually involves an injection of epinephrine. If the person has stopped breathing, CPR may also be necessary. In some cases, antihistamines or cortisone may be given by IV. This is usually followed by monitoring until all of the symptoms have diminished. If the cause of the anaphylaxis is unknown, a doctor can conduct allergy tests to help identify the trigger. It is very easy to test the most common triggers, but in some cases the cause of an anaphylactic shock may never be known.
Some people with known allergies and a history of anaphylaxis may carry an epinephrine injection with them at all times in case of emergency. If they recognize exposure to the trigger allergen early enough, they may administer the injection themselves but if they are incapacitated, it is important that family or friends administer the injection as soon as possible. For this reason, family and friends are usually trained in proper epinephrine injection procedures upon diagnosis. It is still important to see a doctor following a self-treated episode of anaphylaxis to ensure symptoms do not return.
Anaphylaxis can be a very frightening experience, but it is important to remember that is not uncommon and is very treatable. Knowing the symptoms and acting quickly nearly always results in a positive resolution.