Anaphylaxis. Learn the facts about this life-threatening allergic reaction.

Wasp on a person's skin

When Ricker Hamilton got stung by a wasp a few years ago, he immediately began showing signs of a severe allergic reaction. It was third time in 20 years that he’d been stung and thankfully, he carried an EpiPen just in case. It probably saved his life.

When a person has an allergic reaction, it means the immune system is overreacting to something it thinks is trying to attack the body. When it works the way it should the immune system is, in a word, awesome. It protects us against all kinds of viruses and bacteria but in some people, it can go awry and attack a host of seemingly harmless substances. Allergic reactions range from mild and easily treated to severe and life-threatening. The most severe is what Ricker experienced: anaphylaxis. His first sting may have caused a mild reaction, but with each one that followed, his symptoms worsened. It means he became sensitized and with each subsequent sting, it took less and less of the insect venom to trigger a severe reaction.

Common allergens

  • Food  — more common in children than adults. More likely to have a food allergy if other family members have allergies like hay fever, asthma or eczema.
  • Medicine — many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause an allergic reaction.
  • Insect venom — the body’s immune system overreacts to the venom of stinging insects.
  • Animals —  more likely to cause breathing problems than skin problems.
  • Natural rubber (latex) — some people develop allergic reactions after repeated contact with latex, especially latex gloves.
  • Inhaled substances in the workplace, e.g., chemicals, dust, plastic.
  • Cosmetics
  • Pollen, grasses, weeds (seasonal allergies)

Ricker showed signs of anaphylaxis minutes after he was stung — it usually happens quickly and involves several parts of the body at once. His blood pressure dropped and he was covered with hives.

Anaphylaxis symptoms

(source: MedLine Plus)

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abnormal (high-pitched) breathing sounds
  • Anxiety
  • Chest tightness
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Hives, itchiness
  • Nasal congestion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Palpitations
  • Skin redness
  • Slurred speech
  • Swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
  • Unconsciousness
  • Wheezing

Pollens and allergens that are inhaled don’t usually cause anaphylaxis. The most common causes are:

  • Drug allergies
  • Insect bites or stings
  • Food allergies

Because it can be life threatening, it’s important to act quickly if you suspect anaphylaxis. If you or the person having the reaction has an epinephrine autoinjector, such as the EpiPen or AuviQ device, use it right away. The epinephrine works against the allergic reaction by relieving symptoms such swelling and lowered blood pressure. Even if you inject it, it’s important to call 911 or get to the nearest emergency room immediately. Sometimes a person has a second wave of symptoms.

If you have any allergies that put you at risk of anaphylaxis, you should talk with your doctor about getting an epinephrine autoinjector. Remember to fill the prescription and carry the device with you at all times. “I always tell my patients to take charge of their allergy,” says Dr. Marguerite Pennoyer, a Portland allergist/immunologist. “Have an anaphylaxis action plan and carry your epinephrine autoinjectors with you at all times. Epinephrine everywhere, everday! It’s also important to always have two doses of epinephrine with you. More severe reactions may require a second dose.”

Resources

Dr. Pennoyer says a good resource is the Anaphylaxis Community Experts program, which is sponsored by Allergy and Asthma Network|Mothers of Asthmatics and the American College of Asthma and Immunology.

Also, Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio produced a video a few years ago that explains exactly how to use an EpiPen. While aimed at children (yes, even a child can use one), I thought the video did a great job of explaining for all age levels.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane Atwood was the health reporter on News Center 6. She's now a regular guest on the Morning Report. Before she became a health reporter, Diane was a radiation therapist/dosimetrist at Maine Medical Center. In 2000, she left the world of reporting to manage marketing and public relations for Mercy Hospital. In 2011, she decided to pursue a longtime dream of being a freelance writer and launched her award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.