Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that could occur suddenly and worsen quickly and could lead to death. Most of the time anaphylaxis happens after being exposed to allergens or irritants that lead to the release of histamine that causes allergy symptoms.
The most common triggers are: medicines, foods, insect stings and latex. Less common triggers include x-ray dyes and exercise. Penicillin and related antibiotics are the most common medicines that cause anaphylaxis. Other medicines are aspirin and other pain medicines such as ibuprofen. Peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, milk, and eggs are the most common food triggers.
The symptoms usually start shortly after eating the problem food. Physical activity can cause allergic symptoms in some people. In rare cases this can lead to anaphylaxis. In some cases, it is triggered by eating certain foods before exercise. Most symptoms can be controlled by medicines and by not exercising when the symptoms start. Sometimes doctors cannot pinpoint the cause of anaphylaxis even with allergy testing and lab work. These cases are labeled as "idiopathic" which is a medical term meaning that at this time the cause is unknown.
The symptoms and course of anaphylaxis can be quite different from one person to the next. The serious symptoms include: trouble breathing, hives or swelling, tightness of the throat, hoarse voice, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dizziness, low blood pressure, rapid heart beat, feeling of doom, and cardiac arrest.
The best way to prevent trouble is to avoid medicine that has caused problems in the past and eating food that has triggered reactions in the past. Allergy testing will help find the specific food that triggers the anaphylaxis. An epinephrine (adrenalin) shot is the most common emergency treatment for anaphylaxis. Epinephrine works best when it is injected immediately after the reaction starts.
Symptoms usually improve quickly after epinephrine is injected. You may get a prescription for an easy-to-use, self-treatment shot of epinephrine (Epipen/Twin-ject). You should carry this shot with you at all times for emergency self-treatment of an unexpected anaphylaxis attack. Always get emergency medical care immediately after using epinephrine because one shot may not be enough to stop the reaction.
If you had an anaphylaxis attack in the past:
- Wear a medical bracelet that lists your trigger(s).
- Avoid your trigger(s) to prevent future reactions.
- When shopping for food, check ingredient labels carefully.
- When eating at a restaurant, check all ingredients with the chef before eating.
- If your child has a food allergy, make sure his or her school is prepared to deal with possible reactions.
- Know what to do if you unexpectedly come into contact with your trigger. Your doctor can help you make a detailed plan for emergency care.
- If your doctor has prescribed an epinephrine shot carry it with you at all times.
- Teach your family and friends how to help you if you begin to have an anaphylaxis attack and cannot help yourself.