According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), roughly 30% of all Americans experience allergies. Whether seasonal or year-round, allergies can range in severity, causing a person to experience symptoms that range from mildly annoying to life-threatening.
When a person with allergies encounters an allergy trigger, the immune system goes into overdrive, releasing antibodies and chemicals like histamine to combat the allergen and rid it from the body. However, if the immune system reacts strongly enough, it can release far too much, overwhelming the body and sending the person into a severe state of overcorrection, or anaphylaxis.
The AAFA estimates that roughly one in 50 people or 2% of Americans risk anaphylaxis, making it a possible complication to experience or witness.
Just like there are varying levels of allergies, there are varying levels of anaphylaxis, the most dangerous being anaphylactic shock. To protect yourself and your loved ones from the dangers of a severe allergic reaction, we’re detailing why it occurs, what signs to look out for, and what you can do to prevent reactions from reaching life-threatening levels.
Allergic Reactions, Anaphylaxis, and Anaphylactic Shock
Allergies are extremely common and are usually mild to moderate, depending on the allergen and the person’s tolerance levels. When the immune system detects an allergen, it can release antibodies and chemicals like histamine to flush the allergen out of the system. This release can lead to series of reactions in your eyes, nose, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.
Common, everyday allergy triggers can include:
- Airborne allergens, including dust mites, mold spores, pet dander, and pollen.
- Contact allergens, including chemicals, detergents, latex, lotions, perfumes, plants, soaps, and other topical products.
- Food allergens, including dairy products, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat.
- Insect allergens, including ants, bees, hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets.
- Medication allergens, including anti-seizure medications, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), penicillin, and penicillin-based antibiotics.
Depending on how a person’s immune system tolerates or fights an allergen, the person can exhibit following symptoms to any of these allergy triggers:
- Airborne – Red, swollen, itchy, and watery eyes; irritation in the nose, mouth, and throat; excessive sneezing.
- Contact – Rashes on the skin that swell and itch; skin that becomes bumpy or flakey.
- Food – Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat; tingling in the mouth; hives that break out across the body.
- Insect – Swelling at the bite or sting site; breakout of rashes or hives across the body; coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath.
- Medication – Breakout of rashes or hives across the body; swelling in the face; wheezing.
Some of these reactions are more troublesome than others, but people generally experience mild to moderate levels of allergy symptoms if they encounter an allergy trigger.
Anaphylaxis is the most severe reaction your immune system can have to an allergen. When the immune system releases extremely high levels of chemicals and antibodies, it can lead to life-threatening reactions.
Anaphylaxis often begins with a facial itch that can develop into:
- Chest tightening
- Hives and rashes
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Stomach pain
- Swelling in the mouth, tongue, or throat that can block the airway
- Wheezing or difficulty breathing
The triggers most likely to cause anaphylaxis include:
- Food products that include dairy, eggs, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat
- Insect venom, specifically from bee and wasp stings
- Medical substances, including penicillin, NSAIDs, and contrast dyes used for MRIs and CT scans
- Latex products, including balloons, gloves, paints, tapes, and more
Anaphylaxis usually progresses over the course of 30-60 minutes after contact with the allergen.
Without immediate medical attention, anaphylaxis can likely develop further into anaphylactic shock as the body weakens trying to fight the allergen and struggles to stay alive.
Signs of anaphylactic shock:
- Drop in blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Loss of consciousness
- Sudden weakness
How to Treat Someone Experiencing Anaphylaxis
If you or someone with you develops symptoms of anaphylaxis, seek medical attention immediately. Anaphylaxis is an emergency condition and can progress rapidly and fatally if left untreated.
In the event of anaphylaxis, follow these steps:
- Call 911 and inform the dispatcher that you or the patient is in anaphylaxis.
- Inject yourself or the patient with epinephrine if available (ex: an EpiPen). Follow the instructions printed on the device’s label and continue seeking medical help. Epinephrine is helpful in emergency situations, but it is not intended to replace medical care.
- Remove the allergen from your surroundings, if possible.
- If you or the patient has trouble breathing, sit in an upright position to expand the chest and open the airways as much as possible. (Prioritize this if breathing complications and swelling are happening at the same time.)
- If you or the patient is experiencing swelling, position yourself or them on the back with legs raised.
- If symptoms do not show any signs of improvement, or if breathing remains difficult, inject more epinephrine five minutes after the first injection.
How to Prevent Anaphylaxis
While triggers cannot always be avoided, there are ways to reduce your risk of experiencing anaphylaxis:
- Know your triggers. Undergo allergy testing with a trusted allergist to determine what causes reactions and how severe your body reacts to the allergen(s).
- Avoid your triggers. Since food items are the most common cause of anaphylaxis, it is important to know what you are eating. Study food labels, make your own meals, and let restaurant staff know what you cannot eat whenever you dine out. If you react to insects, wear full-coverage clothing while outside and avoid common areas where stinging insects often gather. Inform medical staff of a medication or latex allergy.
- Carry two up-to-date epinephrine injectors at all times.
Are People Born with Allergies and Anaphylaxis, or Can Either Develop Over Time?
The answer to both is “yes.” Some people are born with an immune system that reacts to allergens. Others may not exhibit allergy symptoms in childhood but will develop them into adulthood. Most people who do develop allergies at any point in their life only reach mild to moderate reaction levels. It is rare to develop anaphylactic levels of sensitivity, but it is not impossible.
If you experience symptoms of allergies or anaphylaxis, talk to the specialists at Langford Allergy.
Dr. Langford and our team offer thorough allergy testing and can help you understand your immune system’s reaction to allergens. Whether your allergies are mild or reach anaphylactic levels, we will create an effective treatment and management plan to ensure you are prepared for any allergens life throws your way. Schedule an appointment or call our office to learn more: 478-787-4728