What is Anaphylaxis?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Anaphylaxis is a life threatening medical emergency. It is basically a severe and deadly form of allergic reaction that can affect several systems of the body. Anaphylaxis is also known as anaphylaxis shock.

The vital areas affected by anaphylaxis include:-

  • Breathing and airways
  • Larynx or the voice box that forms the opening of the airways
  • Blood circulation

Possible triggers for anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is the overwhelming reaction of the body’s immune system to a substance such as food. The immune system goes into an overdrive perceiving the substance as a foreign invader.

Substances that provoke allergic reactions are known as allergens. Commonly known allergens that may lead to anaphylactic reactions include insect stings, nuts (especially peanuts), milk, shellfish, some antibiotics such as penicillins etc.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis

The symptoms of anaphylaxis include severe difficulty in breathing that may be brought about suddenly after exposure to the agent causing the allergy.

Patient complains of feeling dizzy and may lose consciousness.

There are severe itchiness and rashes over the skin as a part of the allergic reaction.

There is swelling of lips, hands and feet and face. This is called angioedema.

The blood pressure falls rapidly and drastically leaving the skin cold and clammy.

Treatment of anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis should always be treated as a medical emergency. Patients should be brought to the emergency department for medical attention as soon as possible.

Usually the most effective and first treatment administered is an injection of an anti-allergy agent for anaphylaxis called adrenaline.

For those who are prone to allergies and have had an anaphylactic shock before, keeping an adrenaline auto-injector at hand or wearing medical allergy alert bracelets may help in identification.

The auto-injector should be injected into their thigh muscle and held in place for 10 seconds.

Outcome

Treated with adrenaline most people make full recovery with no long term ill effects. Deaths due to anaphylaxis are rare and occur only when no treatment is given. Around 20-30 such deaths occur each year.

Preventing anaphylaxis and epidemiology

Anaphylaxis may be prevented by avoiding known triggers in the susceptible person. Around 1 in 12 persons has a repeat attack of anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis affects only 1 in 1,300 people in England and is thus relatively uncommon.

Anaphylaxis can occur at any age and is slightly more common in females than males. Those with allergic conditions such as asthma or atopic eczema are more at risk of developing anaphylaxis.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Oct 7, 2014

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