More than 50 million people in America suffer from allergies, and the physiological response varies for each person. Anaphylaxis (or anaphylactic shock) is a severe and sometimes fatal allergic reaction to an allergen. This reaction is most often the result of an allergy to a medication, certain foods, or an insect sting.
Because swift action can mean the difference between life and death, it’s important to know how to recognize an anaphylactic reaction, the most common triggers, and what you should do during an attack.
Recognizing a Severe Allergic Reaction
Most allergic reactions occur suddenly, but they can also develop slowly. During an anaphylactic attack, the whole body is affected and may cause the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness
- Loss of consciousness
- Nasal congestion
- Dangerously low blood pressure
- Stomach cramping
Other anaphylactic symptoms are less threatening and can manifest as irritation to the skin. These include:
- Hives, welts, or a rash
- Swelling in the throat, tongue, lips, face, eyes, and other areas of the body
Allergy testing is the best way to know exactly what you’re allergic to, so it’s important to get tested by an allergist. In general, there are some common triggers that can cause severe anaphylactic shock.
Common Anaphylactic Triggers
While virtually anything can cause a person to have an allergic reaction, 30 percent of anaphylactic attacks are caused by food. Not all reactions can be traced back to a cause (a term called “idiopathic anaphylaxis”), but the most common food triggers include:
- Tree nuts
Medications are estimated to be the leading cause of allergy-related deaths, according to a study published by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Penicillin is the most common cause of drug-induced anaphylaxis, contributing to roughly 400 deaths per year.
Some individuals have a higher risk of anaphylaxis than others. For example, people who suffer from asthma, eczema, or hay fever are more likely to have severe allergic reactions than those who don’t. Other anaphylactic triggers may include: bee stings, ant stings, latex (rubber), and even exercising if the activity occurs after being exposed to an allergen.
Treating an Anaphylactic Reaction
It can be impossible to completely avoid all of the allergens that cause an allergic reaction, so you should always be prepared for an emergency if you have severe allergies. Also make sure you carry auto-injectable epinephrine with you at all times. This medication could save your life, so teach your friends and relatives how to administer it.
If you think you may be having an anaphylactic reaction, make sure you seek medical attention immediately. Minutes matter, so don’t delay by taking an antihistamine and waiting a few hours for your condition to improve. For the best chance of recovery, take your auto-injectable epinephrine and call an emergency center right away.
Even if symptoms begin to subside, a medical doctor should evaluate your symptoms in case of a second anaphylactic attack. This is called biphasic anaphylaxis and it occurs in about 25 percent of patients who suffer from a fatal or near-fatal allergic reaction.