Anaphylaxis 101: What you Need to Know About This Severe Reaction

Anaphylaxis 101: What you Need to Know About This Severe Reaction

Our family deals with anaphylactic reactions on a regular basis. When you have two highly allergic kids (my son has 18 severe anaphylactic food allergies and my daughter has 6), you come to realize that many individuals know the words anaphylactic and anaphylaxis but don’t fully understand what they mean.

For many, an anaphylactic reaction conjures up images of a patient going into shock: blood pressure drops, breathing becomes difficult, there may even be a loss of consciousness. It’s certainly scary. And while that image is true, it’s just one form of anaphylaxis.

What is an anaphylactic reaction?

To begin with, anaphylaxis is a serious, life-threatening allergic reaction. Okay, you’re thinking, I knew that much, Cheryl. But what does it look like?  Good question. Let’s back up a moment and look at what an allergic reaction is:  when an allergic person’s body is exposed to an allergen, their immune system kicks into overdrive. Thinking it’s got to go into battle against this foreign substance, it releases chemicals that in turn trigger allergy symptoms. This can occur in just one system of the body. 

An anaphylactic response, however, affects more than one part of the body at a time. As an example, your milk-allergic child just helped herself to a fistful of fries that were pre-soaked in dairy to ensure extra crispiness. (Yes, some restaurants do this!) You realize the mistake when you see the hives begin to emerge. She’s starting to complain that her stomach doesn’t feel well. Her face is getting red. This is a reaction that involves multiple body systems. This is anaphylaxis.

Note: for a more complete look at potential symptoms check out FARE’s Allergy Action Plan.

Yikes! That’s scary. What can trigger anaphylaxis?

While not exclusively responsible for such severe reactions, food allergies are the most common cause of anaphylaxis. Insect stings, medications, and latex may also trigger such reactions.  It’s also important to note that while the majority of food allergies in the US can be attributed to eight foods (egg, wheat, milk, soy, peanut, tree nut, shellfish, fish), a person can be allergic to any food and any food can cause a severe, life-threatening reaction.

How can I know if I’m at risk for this type of reaction?

Of course, we’d love to know if we’re at risk. Life would be easier if we could anticipate what type of reaction we might have to respond to, right? The truth, however, is that there is no way to know for sure who is going to react in what way. Not only that, we can’t predict how you might react from exposure to exposure. Your first reaction might be limited to some itching and hives around your mouth. “Okay, great. It’s just a mild allergy. I can handle this,” you think. A future exposure, however, might trigger a response that includes profuse vomiting, hives, and wheezing. Neither the numbers of your allergy test nor your previous reactions can tell you what to expect for certain during a future reaction. If you’re allergic, assume an anaphylactic response is possible. Be prepared to handle one.

How do I treat such a reaction?

As with any reaction, the only real way to prevent an anaphylactic response is to avoid your allergens. Learn to read labels. Ask lots of questions. Don’t eat anything unless you’re certain it’s safe for you. Check body lotions and other self-care products for your allergens. Wash your hands before and after eating. Don’t touch your face before you wash your hands. Learn about the risk of cross contact/cross contamination and how to mitigate your risk from either.

When you (or someone you know) is first diagnosed with a food allergy, ask your doctor to complete an allergy action plan. This is a series of step-by-step directions on how to respond in an emergency. In the event of a reaction, follow this plan. Be prepared to act quickly.

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