Allergies are the most common forms of chronic diseases, affecting over 50 million Americans annually. An allergic reaction occurs when our immune system overreacts to a harmless allergen, confusing it for an invader leading to varying symptoms depending on the type of allergen and the individual.

Various factors determine exactly what kinds of symptoms each individual gets from an allergic reaction. Most symptoms are minor reactions like itching, minor pains, watery eyes, rashes, and swollen lips. However, in some cases, your body might display life-threatening symptoms known as anaphylaxis.

It’s the most severe type of allergic reaction. It is a potentially life-threatening reaction from your immune system that occurs within minutes after coming into contact with an allergen. It mostly occurs in response to food, insect bites, venom, and medication. However, anaphylaxis is a very rare allergic reaction allergy statistics show that only 1 in 50 Americans is at risk of suffering from it.

What Causes Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is caused by the same reactions from your immune system as most other allergies. Your immune system regularly produces antibodies to fight foreign substances that may be harmful to your body. It’s a vital part of human health as this process rids the body of viruses and bacteria that may cause sickness or disease.

Allergies occur when these antibodies overreact to a harmless foreign substance like food or dust. The result of this overreaction could be minor symptoms like itching or swollen body parts. In the case of anaphylaxis, however, the overreaction from the antibodies is a lot more severe, leading to a full-body allergic reaction that could be life-threatening if not dealt with immediately and effectively.

As with regular allergies, food substances are the most common cause of anaphylaxis. An estimated 32 million Americans suffer from food allergies, with food substances being the most common cause of anaphylaxis in children and young adults while insect bites and medication are a more common cause in adults. Some of the most common foods that cause an allergic reaction include milk, peanuts, fish, and eggs. Research has shown that ingestion isn’t the only way a food-induced anaphylaxis reaction can occur as the smell of food with allergen substances can also trigger a reaction in rare cases.

Medication triggers are mostly found in adults, who have allergic reactions when their bodies come in contact with a certain drug. Penicillin is a common cause of the reaction, as well as, aspirin, ibuprofen, and other anti-inflammatory drugs. Muscle relaxants and anti-seizure medication are also common causes of anaphylaxis in adults.

Foods and medication might be the two most common causes of anaphylaxis, but there are other rare causes of severe allergic reactions. The contact with certain plants and grass species has been known to cause anaphylaxis in adults and even the smell of these plants might induce a reaction within minutes. The smell or contact with latex found in hospitals, gloves, and balloons also causes anaphylaxis on rare occasions.

Perhaps the rarest form of allergy is exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Certain aerobic exercises such as jogging, especially when done in extremely hot or cold temperatures have been linked to it. Also, the ingestion of certain food substances beforehand can increase the chances of anaphylaxis during exercise.

Symptoms Of Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis starts like any other allergic reaction. Within 5-10 minutes, minor symptoms like skin rash, swollen lips or runny nose might occur. Anaphylaxis symptoms may begin to appear within 30 minutes to an hour of contact with the allergen.

In most cases, anaphylaxis affects different parts of the body at once, including the skin, face, and respiratory system.

Skin

Skin reactions are usually the first sign of anaphylaxis. These include rashes, itching, hives, and swelling of the affected tissues. A burning sensation may also accompany the rashes as well as dryness and a pale look from lack of oxygen.

Face

The face becomes red and swollen once anaphylaxis reaction kicks in. Rashes sometimes develop and eyes become watery and have a burning sensation when open. The lips become swollen and the face becomes pale.

Respiratory System

One of the most common anaphylaxis symptoms is difficulty in breathing. The throat becomes tight and breathing becomes difficult. Nausea, vomiting, and tightness in the chest are common as well as coughing, wheezing and pain with swallowing.

Some other symptoms of anaphylaxis include dizziness and inability to walk independently. Abdominal pain and diarrhea occur in some individuals as well as a reduced heart rate and weak pulse, low blood pressure, and difficulty speaking.

In certain cases, an anaphylaxis attack can reoccur within 24 hours if not properly diagnosed or if the person comes into contact with another or the same allergen—this is known as biphasic anaphylaxis. Although extremely rare, if an attack isn’t diagnosed in due time, the person may go into shock, which can lead to brain damage, heart attacks, kidney failure, and fatality.

Treatment Of Anaphylaxis

The first stage of treating anaphylaxis is issuing the patient with an epinephrine shot ideally in the thigh. It slows down the symptoms and eases the respiratory system. Epinephrine doses are often given to people after a few allergic reactions. Call medical personnel immediately after issuing epinephrine or take the patient to the emergency room.

More shots of epinephrine will likely be administered at the hospital as well as a few other medical procedures like tracheostomy and shots of antihistamines depending on the reaction of the patient to the epinephrine injections. The patient is kept in the hospital for at least 12 hours in most cases because of a biphasic reaction, which sometimes occurs.

The management of severe allergies and long term treatment of anaphylaxis is complicated, so the patient will be directed to an allergy doctor. They will give advice on the management of allergies as well as medication and some epinephrine doses, which you should keep at hand in case of a future anaphylaxis reaction.