Anaphylaxis is the life-threatening reaction that some people may have in response to an allergen. It can cause severe symptoms that may lead to death if not treated immediately. Anaphylaxis is generally the same in people of any age, but there are some important minor differences that affect how it is identified and what triggers the reaction.
Causes of Anaphylaxis
The differences begin with what causes the reaction in the first place. In children the overwhelmingly most common cause of anaphylaxis is a food allergen. Food allergies are more common in children than adults and are the types of allergies most likely to trigger this severe reaction. In adults, on the other hand, anaphylaxis is more often caused by other allergens: antibiotics, insect stings, anesthesia and radio-contrast materials used in medical imaging. Anaphylaxis triggered by food allergens in adults is possible, but less common.
These general symptoms are the signs of an anaphylactic reaction that can be seen in anyone of any age and that should lead to emergency care:
- Hives, itchy skin or a rash
- Swelling in the face, mouth or throat that makes breathing difficult
- A rapid or weak pulse
- A drop in blood pressure
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Dizziness, fainting
Patterns of Anaphylaxis Symptoms in Children
Some studies have looked at children of different ages to determine how the symptoms of anaphylaxis vary. This is important because understanding different ways in which the reaction presents itself makes it easier to recognize, diagnose and treat. This is especially true in infants and younger children who cannot communicate their symptoms as well as older children and adults.
One pattern found was that infants are more likely to have vomiting and hives when going through anaphylaxis. Infants may also drool during a reaction, which is a sign that breathing has become difficult. Infants and younger children are less likely to have a drop in blood pressure, but researchers point out that this may be explained by the fact that they are less likely to have their blood pressure measured during treatment.
In preschool-aged children, the most common signs of anaphylaxis are related to breathing. They are likely to exhibit wheezing and stridor, a high-pitched sound made when struggling to breathe. Older children and teens are more likely to exhibit cardiovascular symptoms from anaphylaxis. These include dizziness, lightheadedness, heart palpitations and chest pains.
Adults and Anaphylaxis
Adults are generally likely to experience the same symptoms children do when experiencing anaphylaxis. However, adults are more likely to suffer from low blood pressure, which presents additional risks. This is because the cardiovascular system in children and teens is stronger, while in adults it may be weakened. This makes it more difficult for an adult’s system to keep blood pressure up at a safe level.
The differences in anaphylaxis symptoms are minor, but they are also significant. Because anaphylaxis can look a little bit different in children and especially in infants, it may be underdiagnosed. This is dangerous and can lead to fatalities. It is crucial to understand what anaphylaxis looks like at different ages to help save more lives with appropriate emergency treatment.