Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that can be life-threatening if you don’t receive medical attention quickly. A number of allergens can trigger this kind of serious reaction. Learn to recognize the most important symptoms, tell anaphylaxis apart from a more benign reaction, and find out what to do in this situation.

What Does Anaphylaxis Look Like?

Symptoms can vary from one person to another. Different allergens can cause different symptoms to appear.

Here are the first symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction:

  • A runny nose and sneezing are usually the first symptoms.
  • Skin can break out in hives, start itching or become red or pale.
  • Changes in blood pressure are common. Blood pressure can either drop, or the person will experience a rapid pulse.
  • Anxiety, diarrhea, pain and abdominal cramps are common.

If nothing is done, more serious symptoms can appear. Anaphylactic shock might come next if the person doesn’t receive medical attention. Here is what typically comes next:

  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Dizziness and fainting.
  • Swelling of the tongue and throat, which results in obstructed airways.


It is possible to experience an anaphylactic reaction and to only have a few of the symptoms listed above. Symptoms can spread to different areas, or be limited to the area that was in contact with the allergen.

The symptoms can start appearing right after the initial exposure to the allergen. However, it is possible to go into anaphylactic shock hours after being exposed to an allergen.

Some of these symptoms are similar to what you would experience during a milder allergic reaction. Hives and tightness in the chest don’t necessarily mean that you will go into shock.

However, it is best to monitor the person who is experiencing symptoms or to seek medical attention if you are experiencing unusual symptoms. Anaphylaxis can start with a few minor symptoms before getting more serious.

What Causes Anaphylaxis?

You won’t experience an anaphylactic reaction unless you have a severe allergy. You are more likely to develop a severe allergy if you already have allergies, if you have asthma, or if there is a history of severe allergic reactions in your family.

Exposure to an allergen can cause your immune system to release antibodies. These antibodies then cause cells to release chemicals that affect the way your organs work. The symptoms of your allergic reaction will vary in function of the type of antibodies produced, and in function of the organs affected.

In the case of an anaphylactic reaction, the immune system is responding to the presence of an allergen in an extreme manner. This is why symptoms can quickly spread to other parts of your body and why you can go into shock within a few minutes if nothing is done.

Here are some of the most common triggers for severe allergic reactions:

  • Some proteins found in foods like milk, eggs, nuts, wheat, soy, or seafood.
  • Some medications, such as Penicillin and other antibiotics.
  • Exposure to latex.
  • Insect stings or bites.
  • In some rare cases, anaphylaxis is caused by exercising.

Note that it is possible to develop allergies later in life even if you have been exposed to an allergen before and didn’t react. Your allergic reaction symptoms can change over the course of time, and it is possible for an allergy to disappear after a while.

What to Do If You or Someone Goes into Anaphylactic Shock?

You need to act fast since anaphylaxis is a life-threatening reaction. The symptoms can be reversed with an epinephrine injection. You can do this yourself with an auto-injector or go to an emergency room to receive an injection.

Time is of the essence since anaphylaxis can cause you to be unable to breathe or go into cardiac arrest.

Note that you will still need to visit an emergency room if you are able to use an EpiPen. You might need another injection after a few minutes, and will probably need to be monitored to make sure the symptoms go away.

How Does Epinephrine Work?

You can use an EpiPen, an EpiPen Jr for a child, or a generic version of these products. These injection pens are single-use and are usually prescribed to individuals with a history of severe allergic reactions.

These auto-injectors contain synthetic adrenaline. It works by narrowing blood vessels and opening up airways, which reverses the life-threatening symptoms of anaphylaxis. Once epinephrine has been injected, airways should return to a normal size and blood pressure should become regular again.

Using an auto-injector is very easy and you or the person experiencing a severe allergic reaction should start feeling better within minutes:

  • Remove the emergency cap.
  • Apply the black tip against your outer thigh. The injection should be done in the fleshy portion of the outer thigh and not in a vein.
  • Hold the leg in place if you are using an EpiPen on a child.
  • Push the EpiPen against the thigh. The injection will work through clothing.
  • There is a spring-loaded needle inside of the pen that will inject the epinephrine as you apply pressure.
  • Hold the auto-injector in place for a few seconds.
  • You can then carefully remove it, and place the used pen inside of the tube. Make sure you insert the needle-end first.
  • You or the person who experienced anaphylaxis still needs to go to an emergency room since more epinephrine might be needed.

If you don’t have an auto-injector with you, you should call 911 immediately. If a person goes into anaphylactic shock and stops breathing, give them CPR. Getting an epinephrine shot is an absolute priority, so make sure you call 911 before starting CPR.

Other anti-allergen treatments such as antihistamine won’t work if a person is going into shock. These treatments can treat mild symptoms, but won’t help if a person’s airways are swelling shut.

Performing CPR

CPR is necessary if a person can’t breathe or goes into cardiac arrest. You can perform hands-only CPR if you aren’t trained by applying chest compressions. Use both hands to push straight down on the center of the person’s chest. Count 100 to 120 compressions a minute.

The person should be on their back on a firm surface. Open their airways as much as possible by tilting their head back and lifting their chin forward. Remember to call 911 before you start performing CPR since it is crucial that the person receives an epinephrine injection as quickly as possible.

What To Do After Experiencing Anaphylaxis

If you had a severe allergic reaction to something, you need to figure out what triggered your symptoms so you can avoid this allergen in the future. You might need to make some changes to your diet or to stop taking a medication.

If you are not sure about what causes your allergic reaction, schedule an appointment with an allergist. It is possible to some skin tests to determine which allergens are affecting you.

Allergists and immunologists can’t always get conclusive results since some allergens can’t be detected through skin tests. However, you should have an idea of what caused your anaphylaxis. It is best to avoid this potential allergen to be on the safe side, even if you can’t get a clear diagnosis.

Once you have identified your triggers, establish a plan to avoid them:

  • If you had an allergic reaction to a medication, stop taking it and ask your doctor to prescribe you an alternative.
  • If you are allergic to a food, eliminate it from your diet and be careful with cross-contamination.
  • Wear a medical bracelet with details about your allergies and emergency contact information.
  • Carry a list of medications you take with you as well as your doctor’s contact information.
  • Carry an EpiPen with you. Ideally, you should carry two since they are single-use. Store them away from light and humidity and don’t leave them in your car.
  • Ask your doctor for a training pen so you can practice giving yourself an injection in the thigh. Have your loved one’s practice as well.
  • Learn to recognize the first symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction. You might break out in hives or have a runny nose before more serious symptoms appear.
  • If you recognize any of these early symptoms, use your EpiPen. Getting an injection you don’t need won’t harm you, but it could prevent more serious symptoms from appearing.
  • Make sure that healthcare providers know about your allergies. Don’t hesitate to double check when you are prescribed something new!

Keep in mind that you might experience milder allergic symptoms if you are exposed to the same allergen. However, it is best to be prepared and to know what to do in case you show signs of anaphylaxis again.

Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening if nothing is done, but it is possible to reverse these symptoms with an epinephrine injection. If you or someone you know recently experienced one of these severe allergic reactions, you should meet with a healthcare professional to establish a plan and avoid exposure to the allergen in the future.

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