Anaphylaxis

1 What is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction to an allergen, which if not treated immediately may turn fatal.

The allergic reaction may occur within seconds of exposure to allergen like certain food, insect bites, or some medications.

Anaphylaxis is caused by an over-reactive immune system that produces potentially life-threatening symptoms when exposed to some allergens.

Anaphylaxis is characterized by sudden drop in blood pressure, dilation of blood vessels, swelling, and shock.

It requires immediate medical attention. Some people, like those having allergies and asthma, have an increased risk of developing anaphylaxis.

Emergency epinephrine shots are used to control the serious symptoms of the condition. If left untreated, anaphylaxis leads to unconsciousness and even death. 

2 Symptoms

Symptoms of anaphylaxis begins within few minutes of exposure to the allergen.

In some cases the onset of symptoms may be delayed to 30 minutes or more after the exposure.

Symptoms affect more than one part of the body and include

  • Itchy, red rashes or hives on skin
  • Swelling of throat and tongue that makes breathing difficult
  • Wheezing
  • Weak and rapid pulse
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Chest discomfort
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Redness of skin
  • Slurred speech
  • Unconsciousness

3 Causes

Anaphylaxis is caused by exaggerated response of the immune system that considers an otherwise harmless substance as an allergen.

The over-reactive immune system produces antibodies against the allergen during the first exposure.

Further exposure to the allergen triggers the production of histamines, which result in serious symptoms that are characteristic of anaphylaxis.

Normal allergic reactions to an allergen are not serious or fatal. But some reactions are so severe leading to anaphylaxis.

Some of the common triggers of anaphylaxis include

  • Food like peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, shellfish, milk, and eggs.
  • Certain medications like penicillin, general anesthetic, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Insect stings or bites
  • Latex
  • Exercise 

Anaphylaxis caused by some NSAIDs is not triggered by antibodies, although the symptoms are similar to that of allergy-induced reaction.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis caused by exercise vary from individual to individual. In some people aerobic activity triggers a reaction, while in some others simple activities like walking triggers a response.

Having a history of anaphylaxis, allergies, and asthma increases the chances of developing anaphylactic reaction.

Having a family history also increases the probability of anaphylaxis.

4 Making a Diagnosis

Diagnosis of anaphylaxis is based on symptoms.

Review of medical history reveals previous episodes of allergic reaction to an allergen.

Review of the cause of the symptoms like exposure to certain allergens like food, medications, or insect bite, is also suggested.

Skin test and blood test helps to confirm allergic reaction.

Confirmatory diagnosis is done after ruling out chances of other conditions that result in similar symptoms. 

5 Treatment

Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical treatment to alleviate the potentially life-threatening symptoms. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation helps to improve breathing and functioning of heart.

Management of anaphylactic reaction include

  • Emergency epinephrine shots – this helps to reduce the allergic response to an allergen
  • Oxygen supplementation – to alleviate shortness of breath
  • Antihistamines – these medications prevent the action of histamines that cause symptoms
  • Cortisone – helps to improve breathing by reducing inflammation of the respiratory passage
  • Beta-agonists – these drugs are also used to improve breathing

Those who have an increased risk of anaphylaxis should carry the emergency epinephrine shot always.

The first step in the treatment of an anaphylactic reaction is to give a shot with the autoinjector.

6 Prevention

Avoiding allergens is the best way to prevent anaphylaxis. Some common preventive measures that help are

  • Wearing an allergy alert bracelet
  • Informing doctor regarding medication allergy before any treatment
  • Having an emergency kit of epinephrine shots and medications
  • Taking precautions to avoid insect bites and stings
  • Reading food labels carefully to avoid exposure to allergen

7 Alternative and Homeopathic Remedies

Natural or homeopathic remedies are generally inappropriate for anaphylaxis as it is an emergency situation.

But, alternative therapies may help to reduce the severity of anaphylaxis. Herbs, acupuncture, and nutrition are considered to be promising in this regard.

Aconitum is used in homeopathy to reduce anxiety during anaphylactic reaction.

Apis mellifica helps to reduce swelling of skin following an insect bite.

Acupuncture is found to be promising in controlling anaphylactic shock.

Omega-3 fatty acids, quercetin and other flavonoids, vitamin C, and zinc are the nutritional components implied in reducing the severity of symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Sweet chestnut tree, danshen root, hardy orange, skullcap root, licorice root, and reishi mushroom are traditionally used to prevent anaphylaxis in susceptible individuals. 

8 Lifestyle and Coping

Having an emergency action kit and action plan helps to cope with the serious situation during anaphylaxis.

This action plan can be shared with family and friends for immediate help. 

9 Risk and Complications

There are several risks and complications associated with anaphylaxis.

Severe symptoms of anaphylaxis are potentially life-threatening. 

It affects breathing and heartbeat, both of which require immediate treatment. 

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