When Allergies Become Life-Threatening

What you need to know about anaphylaxis.

Most of us don’t think twice about eating a peanut butter sandwich or wearing a pair of latex gloves to clean the house. But for a select few, exposure to things like peanuts, latex, medications, and insect stings can be life-or-death situations. Allergies usually cause a harmless rash, runny nose, or stomachache. Anaphylaxis, on the other hand, is a severe allergic reaction that can result in death if not treated immediately. For some people with a peanut allergy, all it takes is inhaling peanut dust or touching a peanut product and within seconds or minutes their life is at risk.

Here’s what you should know about this dangerous condition.

Immune System Gone Haywire

When you’re allergic to something, your body misinterprets the allergen as a foreign substance to fight, and an immune response triggers the chemicals that cause allergy symptoms. These symptoms usually occur in one part of the body like your respiratory or digestive system. With anaphylaxis, multiple parts of the body are flooded with chemicals at once, which can result in shock.

The most common triggers of anaphylaxis are insect venom (bees, fire ants, and wasps), certain foods (peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, and wheat), medications (penicillin), latex, and even exercise.

What to Watch For

Usually within 5 to 30 minutes but sometimes longer after exposure to an allergen, symptoms of anaphylaxis begin to set in. You may notice your throat or tongue feeling swollen or the sensation that there’s a lump in your throat. You may have trouble swallowing and your voice begins to sound hoarse. As your airways become constricted, you may begin to wheeze, feel tightness in your chest, and have trouble breathing. Some people have stomach cramps, diarrhea, and/or vomiting. Your skin is likely to turn pale or look flushed and develop an itchy, red rash. Additionally, your heart rate may slow down or speed up and you may feel dizzy or pass out.

Get Help!

Any time you experience symptoms of anaphylaxis, don’t wait around hoping they get better on their own. Anaphylaxis can cause your breathing and heart to stop, unconsciousness, and death. For this reason, immediate medical attention in the emergency room and a shot of epinephrine are necessary.
Many people with known severe allergies carry (or should carry) an epinephrine auto-injector on themselves at all times in the case of anaphylaxis. EpiPens and the EpiPen Jr. are popular epinephrine auto-injectors. Don’t hesitate to administer an injection if it’s available. You could save a life.

But don’t end treatment there. The shot may help relieve symptoms of anaphylaxis, but a trip to the emergency room is still important since symptoms may come back.

Who’s at Risk?

You’re more likely to experience anaphylaxis if you have asthma or allergies, someone in your family has had anaphylaxis, or if you’ve had a prior episode. So be prepared—especially if you’ve had anaphylaxis in the past, as subsequent reactions are likely to be more severe.

Anyone with risk factors should work with an allergist or immunologist to develop a preventative plan and a plan of action in case of an anaphylaxis emergency. Prevention may include allergy shots (immunotherapy) to slowly lessen your body’s reaction to an allergen, being vigilant about avoiding allergy triggers, taking an antihistamine or prednisone, and carrying an EpiPen that all family members and care takers know how to use.