Definition: Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening type of allergic reaction.
Anaphylaxis is a severe, whole-body allergic reaction to a chemical that has become an allergen. An allergen is a substance that can cause an allergic reaction.
After being exposed to a substance such as bee sting venom, the person’s immune system becomes sensitized to it. When the person is exposed to that allergen again, an allergic reaction may occur. Anaphylaxis happens quickly after the exposure. The condition is severe and involves the whole body.
Tissues in different parts of the body release histamine and other substances. This causes the airways to tighten and leads to other symptoms.
Some drugs (morphine, x-ray dye, aspirin, and others) may cause an anaphylactic-like reaction (anaphylactoid reaction) when people are first exposed to them. These reactions are not the same as the immune system response that occurs with true anaphylaxis. But, the symptoms, risk of complications, and treatment are the same for both types of reactions.
Anaphylaxis can occur in response to any allergen. Common causes include:
Pollen and other inhaled allergens rarely cause anaphylaxis. Some people have an anaphylactic reaction with no known cause.
Anaphylaxis is life threatening and can occur at any time. Risks include a history of any type of allergic reaction.
Symptoms develop quickly, often within seconds or minutes. They may include any of the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling anxious
- Chest discomfort or tightness
- Difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, or high-pitched breathing sounds
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Hives, itchiness, redness of the skin
- Nasal congestion
- Nausea or vomiting
- Slurred speech
- Swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
The health care provider will examine the person and ask about what might have caused the condition.
Tests for the allergen that caused anaphylaxis (if the cause is not obvious) may be done after treatment.
Anaphylaxis is an emergency condition that needs medical attention right away. Call 911 immediately.
Check the person’s airway, breathing, and circulation, which are known as the ABC’s of Basic Life Support. A warning sign of dangerous throat swelling is a very hoarse or whispered voice, or coarse sounds when the person is breathing in air. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.
- Call 911.
- Calm and reassure the person.
- If the allergic reaction is from a bee sting, scrape the stinger off the skin with something firm (such as a fingernail or plastic credit card). Do not use tweezers. Squeezing the stinger will release more venom.
- If the person has emergency allergy medicine on hand, help the person take or inject it. Do not give medicine through the mouth if the person is having difficulty breathing.
- Take steps to prevent shock. Have the person lie flat, raise the person’s feet about 12 inches (30 centimeters), and cover the person with a coat or blanket. Do not place the person in this position if a head, neck, back, or leg injury is suspected, or if it causes discomfort.
- Do not assume that any allergy shots the person has already received will provide complete protection.
- Do not place a pillow under the person’s head if they are having trouble breathing. This can block the airways.
- Do not give the person anything by mouth if they are having trouble breathing.
The person may receive medicines to further reduce symptoms.
Anaphylaxis can be life threatening without prompt treatment. Symptoms usually do get better with the right therapy, so it is important to act right away.
Without prompt treatment, anaphylaxis may result in:
Call 911 if you or someone you know develops severe symptoms of anaphylaxis. Or, go to the nearest emergency room.
To prevent allergic reactions and anaphylaxis:
- Avoid triggers such as foods and medicines that have caused an allergic reaction in the past. Ask detailed questions about ingredients when you are eating away from home. Also carefully examine ingredient labels.
- If you have a child who is allergic to certain foods, introduce one new food at a time in small amounts so you can recognize an allergic reaction.
- People who know that they have had serious allergic reactions should wear a medical ID tag.
- If you have a history of serious allergic reactions, carry emergency medicines (such as a chewable antihistamine and injectable epinephrine or a bee sting kit) according to your provider’s instructions.
- Do not use your injectable epinephrine on anyone else. They may have a condition (such as a heart problem) that could be worsened by this drug.
Brown SGA, Kemp SF, Lieberman PL. Anaphylaxis. In: Adkinson NF Jr, Bochner BS, Burks AW, et al, eds. Middleton’s Allergy: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 77.
Lieberman P, Nicklas RA, Randolph C, et al. Anaphylaxis – a practice parameter update 2015. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2015;115(5):341-384. PMID: 26505932 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26505932.
Schwartz LB. Systemic anaphylaxis, food allergy, and insect sting allergy. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 253.