What is Anaphylaxis?

Q: My son’s best friend has a severe allergic reaction to nuts. What do I need to watch for?

A: Allergies are common and usually not life-threatening. But there can be cases of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that needs immediate medical treatment.

Within minutes, or hours, of being exposed to an allergy trigger, the body starts a chain reaction that temporarily widens the blood vessels, which can lower blood pressure. A person may pass out or get hives and swelling, especially around the face and throat. There may also be difficulty breathing, talking, or swallowing.

Peanuts and tree nuts are common triggers but so are shellfish like shrimp and lobster; dairy products; eggs; insect stings from wasps, bees, and ants; latex; and medications. In rare cases, usually after eating certain foods that trigger your allergy, exercise and physical activity also can trigger anaphylaxis.

Most kids with severe allergic reactions are probably trained to know which triggers to avoid. But things can happen in a split second. Talk with the child’s family about foods they can eat, severe allergy signs to look for and how to treat an allergic reaction. The best way to prevent anaphylaxis is to avoid substances that are known to cause this severe reaction. However, allergens in foods are often hidden so carefully read all labels. Some food might be prepared in a facility that processes allergy triggers like nuts. Even small amounts of the food that a child is allergic to can cause a serious reaction.

Watch for these anaphylaxis symptoms and call 911 right away if there is difficulty breathing or noisy breathing; hives; swelling of the throat, face, lips, or tongue; tightness in the lungs; wheezing; hoarseness; pale or flushed skin; sweating; weak, rapid pulse; low blood pressure; dizziness, fainting; nausea, vomiting; and abdominal pain.

If available, use an epinephrine shot, such as Auvi-Q or EpiPen, which may temporarily stop symptoms. However, a patient will still need emergency medical care even if they seem to be OK after treatment.

Kids with mild allergies, such as seasonal allergies, will usually have symptoms like watery, runny eyes; runny nose; sneezing; nasal congestion and an itchy rash or hives. While not usually serious, it is important to look for more serious allergy symptoms, especially in kids who have a history of asthma and severe allergic reactions.

By Michael Fetterolf, MD, ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.