Anaphylaxis happens fast and is always serious and life-threatening. Many people with allergies of all types experience only mild or moderate symptoms during an allergic reaction, but anaphylaxis is never mild or moderate. It is always severe, always has the potential to be fatal and always needs to be treated as a medical emergency. If there is ever a doubt as to whether or not someone is suffering from anaphylaxis, assume that they are and administer epinephrine before calling for emergency medical help.
What is Anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is a whole-body reaction to an allergen. An allergen triggers the immune system, which overreacts to the substance and releases chemicals in the body that cause symptoms. Most of the time, this reaction is localized to one part of the body and causes annoying, but not life-threatening, symptoms.
Anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction that affects the whole body. The flood of chemicals triggered by the immune system response causes the body to go into shock. This is why the reaction is also referred to as anaphylactic shock.
Who Gets Anaphylaxis and What Causes it?
Anaphylaxis can strike without warning, but there are risk factors. An obvious one is having an allergy. Any allergen has the potential to cause anaphylaxis, even in someone who has never had such a serious reaction before. The allergens that are most associated with anaphylaxis are foods, medications and insect bites or stings. Other risk factors are having asthma or having had anaphylaxis previously.
The Early Signs
This is a quick reaction that can start within seconds after being exposed to an allergen and rapidly become deadly serious. However, even within the short time frame of anaphylaxis, there are some early warning signs of what is about to happen. People who have experienced anaphylactic shock describe a sense of dread or doom, that something is not right.
In most cases, changes to the skin are the first physical signs. The skin usually gets red, often in the face, chest or neck. It will likely feel warm to the touch but may not include any perspiration. This is typically followed by hives, which are itchy bumps on the skin.
Developing Symptoms of Anaphylaxis
This reaction develops quickly from a bad feeling to skin issues to the most dangerous symptoms. As the reaction progresses, the next symptoms a person will experience are:
- Swelling in the face, mouth, throat, lips and tongue, sometimes accompanied by a runny nose or sneezing
- Difficulty breathing because of the swelling
- Dropping blood pressure, which can cause lightheadedness and a rapid heartbeat
These are the most serious symptoms and are signs the body is in shock. If treatment is not administered, low blood pressure and swelling may prove fatal. Other symptoms that someone going through anaphylaxis may or may not experience include:
- Digestive symptoms, like nausea, cramping, pain or diarrhea. These are more common in someone who is allergic to a medication or a food.
- A heart spasm. This is most likely in patients with existing cardiac disease. It is caused by restricted blood flow to the heart. In severe cases, a person may have a heart attack.
- Neurological symptoms, like headache, anxiety, confusion, difficulty speaking, loss of consciousness, blurry vision or more rarely a seizure.
In a minority of cases, a person will experience the symptoms again, a second time, between one and 72 hours after the first reaction, even without additional exposure to the allergen. This is called biphasic anaphylaxis. Although it is not common, anyone who is susceptible to anaphylaxis should be aware of the possibility. The average time of onset is eight to 10 hours after the first reaction, and the symptoms, although the same, are usually much less severe.
The most important thing to remember about anaphylaxis is that it is always serious and always requires quick medical attention. It is always an emergency. Even if some people experience slightly different symptoms, the symptoms of shock, which include low blood pressure and swelling, always occur and can always be fatal. If in doubt, administer epinephrine and call for help.