What is anaphylactic shock?
Anaphylactic shock is a massive reaction to an allergen, affecting the whole body. While it usually happens instantly, in some cases it can take hours for the effects to appear.
Like all allergic reactions, the symptoms come about due to the body overreacting to a perceived threat. In the case of anaphylaxis, the severe reaction can lead to the blood vessels and airways constricting, sometimes with fatal effects.
While peanuts account for half of all food-related episodes of anaphylaxis, other nuts, seafood, eggs, fish and milk can also cause the reaction. Likewise stings from bees and wasps. Some medication can also cause this reaction, especially antibiotics, general anaesthetic and some anti-inflammatory drugs.
What are the signs and symptoms?
With anaphylaxis the symptoms can range from mild to severe. Like many allergies, the signs appear at first on the skin, nose and throat area or eyes. They can range from a red skin rash to swollen eyes, lips, hands and feet.
More severe symptoms include:
- being lightheaded or faint
- changes in heart rate
- difficulty breathing
- stomach pain with accompanying nausea and vomiting
How is anaphylaxis treated?
If you or someone with you is suffering an attack, the first thing you should do is call an ambulance. Many people who suffer from severe reactions will carry an EpiPen, which contains a life-saving dose of adrenaline. You should read the instructions first and be sure that it is an anaphylactic attack before administering the EpiPen.
The adrenaline works on alpha and beta receptors in the body. The alpha receptors in the blood vessels are narrowed by the adrenaline. This stops the blood pressure from going too low and redirects blood to the vital organs. When the adrenaline hits the beta receptors they help the heart and lungs relax, which opens the airways and stimulates the heart. Adrenaline can also relieve the itching and swelling.
Always call an ambulance after using an EpiPen. Even if the symptoms go away, they could return and be far more severe.
How can you prevent anaphylaxis?
Once you become aware that you have an allergy, the best advice is to avoid the allergen. Ask at restaurants whether any food is cooked near or in pans that have contained the allergen. In the case of a peanut allergy, even light traces of peanut oil can set off anaphylaxis in some sufferers.
If you’re allergic to insect stings be wary, especially in the summer. Cover your arms and legs and check clothing before putting it on to make sure no bees have crawled inside. Using insect repellent can also keep them at bay.
If you’re allergic to certain types of medicine, be aware that there may be safer alternatives. And always make sure that your doctor and pharmacist know about any allergies.
In some instances, you might be experiencing symptoms but be unsure of what the allergy is to. In this case you should talk to your doctor about getting tested so they can determine what the allergy is.
While it can often be hard to prevent anaphylaxis, you can be prepared for such an eventuality. Carrying two EpiPens with you at all times is a good start if you have certain types of severe allergy (you should keep them in a cool, dark place and keep an eye on the expiry date). You can also carry a card explaining your situation or wear a medical bracelet – this will save time for ambulance staff treating you, in the event of an emergency.