Living with anaphylaxis

November 12, 2012

Living with anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis can be a very scary thing to live with – thankfully it is rare.

Anaphylaxis, commonly referred to as anaphylactic shock, is a very rare, and extremely severe allergic reaction which, in some cases, may be life threatening.

Anaphylaxis develops very rapidly and may affect the whole body – or several parts – at once, the explosive results of exposure to the allergen causing the anaphylaxis reaction may be almost instant

Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction will affects several areas of the body at one time. Each individual affected by anaphylaxis will have a different experience – the severity of the reaction may be very different in one person to another. Where an individual suffers a severe allergic reaction to the same trigger on more than one occasion those reactions will be very similar.

The rapidity of the onset of anaphylaxis symptoms seems to be linked to the severity of those symptoms.

Anyone with a history of allergic disease – even a severe allergic disease – does not necessarily have an increased risk of developing anaphylaxis. However, asthma may increase the severity of the reaction and make it harder to treat.

If there are no repeated reactions the risks of further attacks of anaphylaxis diminish.

Symptoms may occur extremely quickly – within seconds of exposure to the trigger, or may be appear more gradually.

  • Warmth and redness of the skin

  • Itching

  • Appearance of hives

  • Feelings of anxiety

  • Rapid or irregular pulse

  • Swelling of the throat and tongue may follow causing difficulties in breathing and swallowing

  • Hay fever symptoms may appear – including runny nose, sneezing and wheezing, worsening of asthma

  • Vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps.

  • Drop in blood pressure

  • Lightheadedness, loss of consciousness


Once symptoms of a severe allergic reaction have begun to appear there are several outcomes -

  • Mild symptoms may either disappear on their own or be dealt with quickly by administering emergency medication. Symptoms do not generally reoccur.

  • In fewer than 10% of anaphylaxis cases a late phase reaction occurs when symptoms reappear up to 12 hours after the trigger, these symptoms will need to be treated again and patient closely observed.

  • Severe allergic reactions which are also persistent may need to be treated as an in-patient at the hospital


Epinephrine, or adrenaline, is the most commonly used drug in anaphylaxis cases, it works in several ways to reduce the symptoms and effects of the reaction -

  • Contraction of blood vessels prevents fluid leakage

  • Relaxation of bronchial tubes which alleviates breathing difficulties

  • Reduces stomach cramps

  • Reduces itching

  • Prevents further reactions to the trigger

A patient who has been hospitalized after experience an anaphylaxis episode may, along with epinephrine, be treated with IV fluids, oxygen and other medications depending on the previous patient history and the severity of the episode.


Preventing an anaphylaxis episode is far preferable to treating the possibly life threatening symptoms which may follow an episode. But, prevention is often extremely difficult due to nature of the triggers – insect stings and bites for example cannot be anticipated. Possible preventative measures include -

  • Desensitization

  • Allergy shots

  • Pre-medication

Anyone who has a known risk of anaphylaxis should carry, in addition to their emergency medication, a medical alert bracelet which clearly states the allergic trigger, the risk of anaphylaxis, and the availability of an epinephrine kit. They should be fully prepared to deal with an episode and try to avoid known triggers.

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