02/24/2016 05:09 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

What You Need to Know About Anaphylaxis

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For most people with an allergy, a reaction normally means watery eyes, sneezing, a rash, and other mild symptoms. For others, however, being exposed to an allergen can be a life-threatening event.

We define something as an allergy when the body's immune system responds to a normally benign substance as though it were harmful. Allergic symptoms often include sneezing, nasal congestion, wheezing, eye redness, skin rashes, and itching. For many allergy sufferers, these are the worst symptoms they will experience and can manage them with avoidance, medications, and education. For other people, however, exposure to allergens can lead to a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis affects more than one area of the body at the same time and often begins soon after a person is exposed to a substance they are severely allergic to, however in some cases it may take more than an hour to notice symptoms. A biphasic reaction may also occur as many as 12 hours after the first anaphylactic reaction. Anaphylaxis should be treated as a medical emergency and those having a reaction should seek medical attention, such as an epinephrine injection and visiting the emergency room or calling 911.

Your risk of anaphylaxis is increased if you have asthma or allergies and a family history of anaphylaxis. Additionally, an individual that has experienced anaphylaxis has a higher risk of another anaphylactic reaction.

What are the signs of anaphylaxis?
A person suffering from anaphylaxis can experience a range of symptoms, but they may not experience all symptoms in the same episode. The signs of a severe allergic reaction can include:

• Swelling of the mouth and throat
• Difficulty with speaking or swallowing
• Flushing of the skin
• Hives
• Wheezing or trouble breathing
• Nausea, abdominal pain, or vomiting
• Drop in blood pressure
• Changes in heart rate
• Unconsciousness
• Feeling of impending doom

What are common triggers for anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis in children is often caused by foods, whereas in adults anaphylaxis is often triggered by medications. Other common anaphylaxis triggers include latex and insect stings.

The most common food triggers are peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, wheat, and soy, but any food may trigger anaphylaxis. Even minute traces of a food can cause a reaction and, and some very sensitive individuals may even experience a life-threatening reaction by just kissing someone that has eaten the food they are allergic to.

How can anaphylaxis be treated?
An anaphylactic reaction should be treated immediately with an injection of epinephrine. The best ways to manage anaphylaxis are to avoid allergens and have an emergency plan in place.

If you have an allergy that puts you at risk for anaphylaxis, keep your emergency medications with you at all times and educate your friends and family on how to administer the medication in the event that you cannot.

If you feel you are at risk for anaphylaxis and need help creating an action plan, make an appointment with your allergist. An allergist will be able to conduct a thorough investigation into your risk for anaphylaxis and potential causes.