Hao “Mimi” Tran, M.D., F.A.C.S, board-certified otolaryngologist from The Ear, Nose, Throat & Plastic Surgery Associates says, “It’s a systemic reaction involving symptoms such as shortness of breath, increased heart rate, throat closing up, throat swelling, facial swelling, tongue swelling, and even hives.”
Anaphylaxis is a potentially life-threatening condition that should be considered a medical emergency. Approximately 5% to 15% of the U.S. population has experienced anaphylaxis. However, less than 1% of sufferers will experience anaphylaxis as a fatal condition.
Anaphylaxis is of particular concern if you or your children have an allergy. A severe response to a food allergy like peanuts, a bee sting, or other triggers can cause the body to overreact.
What triggers anaphylaxis? What are the signs? Can it be treated? Let’s look at anaphylaxis and how you can prepare in advance to protect yourself or someone you care about.
What Does Anaphylaxis Mean?
Dr. Tran says, “Anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction to something in the body that causes undesired effects.” The immune system is programmed to protect the body from toxins and bacteria. However, the immune system can also react violently to an antigen that does not cause direct harm to the body but that the immune system interprets as a threat.
The perceived threat triggers the release of a flood of chemicals into the body that can cause the body to go into shock. Oftentimes, the reaction is so disproportional to the biological risk posed by an antigen that your body’s immune response can be fatal without the proper treatment.
What Does Anaphylaxis Feel Like?
The experience of anaphylaxis can vary widely between individuals. It most often results in the swelling of the tongue and throat or a severe breathing restriction that can feel like choking. The World Allergy Organization says, “Patients often describe a sense of doom.’”
Commonly, individuals feel redness and itching of the skin, sneezing, congestion, and asthma. You may have severe cramping or feel like your heart is racing out of your chest. It’s a terrifying feeling for anyone of any age. Dr. Tran says, “During anaphylaxis, you can have tachycardia or increased heart rate. Sometimes headaches can occur.”
Anaphylaxis affects the following systems of the body:
- Cardiovascular (Heart, blood pressure)
- Gastrointestinal (Stomach, intestines)
- Mucosal (tongue, lips, throat)
- Ocular (eyes)
- Respiratory (breathing)
Within seconds or minutes of exposure to an allergen, the following life-threatening symptoms can occur:
- Abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
- Dizziness and fainting
- Skin issues, such as a sudden onset of hives
- Slurred speech and confusion
- Swelling of the lips, throat, and tongue that prevent or restrict breathing
- Wheezing, gasping, and coughing
If you are experiencing anaphylaxis, your blood pressure will often drop and your airways will narrow, making it hard to breathe. You may develop a weak, rapid pulse, and red bumps on your skin, known as hives. Nausea and vomiting are also common. Your eyes may swell shut and you may enter respiratory distress. These are all signs of an emergency, so don’t delay seeking medical attention or calling 911 when these symptoms occur.
To prevent anaphylaxis, many people with allergies carry an epinephrine auto-injector, which can counteract a severe immune response. However, even when the proper countermeasures are taken, individuals should still go to the hospital for treatment and evaluation. Anaphylaxis is a dangerous condition and should be taken seriously, even if the risk of an attack is reduced by medical intervention.
How Long Does Anaphylaxis Take to Occur?
Anaphylaxis can occur within five to 30 minutes of exposure to an allergen. However, it may also take time to develop and can last a few days. An allergen can be inhaled, swallowed, or touched—once it’s in your body, the immune system will attempt to reject the substance. Milder antigen responses may cause noticeable symptoms, including hives and red skin for several hours before a more severe reaction.
Anaphylaxis is diagnosed when an allergic reaction develops two or more bodily symptoms, affecting the heart and lungs or the skin and throat.
What Causes Anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis most often occurs in response to five common allergies:
- Food allergy
- Medication allergy
- Insect venom allergy
- Latex allergy
- Vaccine allergy
Food allergies are the most frequent cause of anaphylaxis, followed by stings from insects. In rare cases, exercise can cause anaphylaxis, usually after eating and during vigorous physical activity.
How Do Doctors Treat Anaphylaxis?
Dr. Tran says, “Epinephrine is the number one treatment for anaphylaxis.” She continues, “You may have to give the epinephrine twice and then make your way to a hospital or clinic.”
Epinephrine is adrenaline, a natural hormone produced by the body that can serve as a life-saving medication. If you’re experiencing anaphylaxis, a hit of epinephrine can improve your breathing, dilating the airways and reducing swelling. Your heart will beat stronger, your airways open, and oxygen-rich blood will flow into your vital organs. You will stop itching and can catch your breath again. You’ll feel less lightheaded and more in control. All of this happens quickly to reverse the life-threatening allergic response.
One of the biggest benefits of epinephrine is that it works immediately. An antihistamine, even when injected, isn’t as fast-acting. This makes epinephrine the best choice for an immediate and lifesaving response from your doctor. The Allergy Asthma Network says, “Death due to anaphylaxis is often due to a delay in administering epinephrine.”
If you’re experiencing anaphylaxis, try to stay calm and ask for help. Tell someone nearby that you’re having an extreme allergic response and describe what caused your symptoms. Call 911 or have the other person do it. Most people that are prone to anaphylaxis carry an epinephrine auto-injector, which can save their life. However, since epinephrine wears off after 20 or 30 minutes, it’s important to seek medical help, even if your anaphylaxis symptoms abate.
What Happens After Anaphylaxis?
If you’ve given yourself an epinephrine injection and start to feel better, that’s the time to call for help. We recommend carrying two epinephrine kits because 5% to 15% of all patients who experience anaphylaxis will have a second reaction after administering the first treatment. The second reaction can even occur between eight to 72 hours after the first reaction, which is why patients should seek immediate help when the first attack occurs.
Dr. Tran says, “After an anaphylactic reaction, you can expect exhaustion. Sometimes you will also experience nausea and maybe some vomiting.” If you’ve just experienced anaphylaxis or seen someone go through it, it’s scary and upsetting. However, it offers a chance to learn from the experience and be more prepared in case it happens again.
Are you worried about your own or a loved one’s allergies? A doctor can help.
Ear, Nose, Throat & Plastic Surgery Associates has been serving allergy patients since 1958. We offer innovative treatments guided by our caring and experienced staff. Talk with our team about how we can help you live a more comfortable and safe life.