What is an anaphylactic reaction?

By Brooke Strickland

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that happens rapidly and takes over the body, causing a life threatening situation such as shock and difficulty breathing. If not stopped in time, death can occur.  For this type of reaction to happen, the person must have been exposed to the substance causing the reaction at an earlier date (the antigen).  For example, the first time you’re stung by a bee may cause no allergic reaction, but the second time you’re stung, you may have a sudden, severe allergic reaction – anaphylactic shock.  

What is anaphylactic shock? 

This type of allergic reaction occurs when the immune system overacts to the antigen.  It will happen within seconds or minutes within exposure to the antigen.  White blood cells in the body produce antibodies for circulation into the bloodstream.  When a foreign substance enters the body, these antibodies come into contact with it, and signal other cells to produce mediators, such as histamine. 

What triggers it? 

There are several things that can trigger this type of reaction and it may only take a small amount to cause a strong and severe reaction.  Some of these may include:

  • Venom: Stinging insects such as yellow jackets, wasps, or fire ants produce venom that can signal anaphylaxis.
  • Foods:  Food allergies are common and such reactions can be triggered by milk, eggs, soy, wheat, nuts, shellfish, or certain fruits
  • Food additives:  Food often has things added to it and sulfite additives are commonly the cause of anaphylaxis
  • Latex, dyes, over the counter medicines, or prescription medications

What are the symptoms?

There are varying symptoms of anaphylaxis.  The most severe symptom is breathing difficulty or loss of consciousness.   Other common symptoms include hives, swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or eyes, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, or nasal congestion.  In addition, a person may experience an irregular heartbeat, dizziness, difficulty swallowing, or a tingling/sensation of warmth.

If you think you have allergies, consult a physician to see if you need to carry medication in case of an emergency allergic reaction.  Most importantly, if you or someone you know begins experiencing the symptoms of anaphylactic reaction, you must seek immediate medical treatment.  Calling 911 and watching the person closely may save a life.