Most people are aware that some food allergies, such as shellfish or peanut allergies, can be life-threatening, but other types of allergies can be as well. The vast majority of people with allergies have mild reactions like a runny nose or rash, but for some people, the possible harm is much greater.

Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially deadly allergic reaction. If you or someone you love has allergies, you should be aware of the symptoms of anaphylaxis and know what to do if you suspect it. People with asthma are at a higher risk of anaphylaxis than others.

During anaphylaxis, your body’s immune system overreacts to an allergen and puts you in a state of shock. Your blood pressure drops very quickly, and you struggle to breathe due to narrowed airways. You may feel nauseated or vomit.

Some allergies are more likely to lead to anaphylaxis than others

Some allergens are more likely to cause a severe reaction than others. The allergies that carry the greatest risk of anaphylaxis include:

  • Medications — any medication can cause an allergic reaction, but antibiotics, aspirin, and insulin are the most commonly problematic
  • Foods — peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, soy, and wheat are the most common allergies and are the main cause of anaphylaxis in children
  • Insect stings and bites — bees, fire ants, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and some ticks are all potential causes of anaphylaxis
  • Latex — either direct contact or breathing minuscule particles of latex can lead to anaphylaxis in some people
  • Exercise — one of the rarest causes of anaphylaxis, and often accompanied by a cofactor like seasonal change

Symptoms of anaphylaxis

It’s entirely possible to not know you have an allergy until you find yourself in anaphylaxis. Being able to recognize the symptoms could save your life or the life of someone you care about.

Common signs of anaphylaxis include:

  • A rash or hives
  • Pale or flushed skin
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Wheezing or problems breathing
  • Swollen eyes, lips, or tongue
  • A runny nose
  • Diarrhea
  • Confusion
  • A weak but rapid pulse
  • Nausea or vomiting

It may be seconds or minutes after you’re exposed to the allergen when you begin to see a reaction. Some people experience a second reaction, referred to as a biphasic reaction, hours after the first reaction.

What to do if you recognize anaphylaxis

If you have a known allergy, you probably have a self-injectable dose of epinephrine, such as an EpiPen®. In that case, administer the epinephrine immediately and either call 911 or get to Clear Creek Emergency immediately. Even if the epinephrine stops the reaction, you should go to the emergency department to make sure you don’t have a biphasic reaction.

If this is the first time you’ve had a reaction, get medical attention immediately. Time is important because anaphylaxis happens very quickly, and can be fatal.

After the episode, make an appointment with an allergist, either to be re-evaluated or to be diagnosed. The long-term management of anaphylaxis is complex and, because of the serious potential consequences, should be handled by a trained expert.