A shock to the system: Know your allergies to prevent anaphylaxis

(Photo: Pixabay)

If you suffer from asthma or eczema and are prone to allergies, you have a higher risk of developing anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening.

Anaphylaxis can occur within minutes or seconds of exposure to an allergen, and is a medical emergency.

An anaphylaxis episode occurs suddenly and progresses rapidly. You may experience symptoms such as itching, flushed skin, light-headedness, nausea/vomiting, swollen tongue, tightness in the throat, and rapid heartbeat. Your blood pressure may drop suddenly and your airways may be constricted causing breathing difficulty. You may lose consciousness.

Anaphylaxis, also known as anaphylactic shock, occurs when your immune system overreacts to a trigger such as:

  • Food, e.g. peanuts, tree nuts, milk, fish, shellfish, eggs

  • Medication, e.g. antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), anaesthetic

  • Insect bites

  • Latex rubber in gloves, condoms etc.

Anaphylaxis can also be caused by eating certain foods before aerobic exercise.

If you have had an episode of anaphylaxis, you have a greater risk of experiencing another episode.

(Photo: Pixabay)

What to do if someone has an anaphylaxis episode

  • Remove the trigger if possible

  • Lie down flat and elevate your legs (someone with breathing difficulty should remain in a sitting position)

  • Administer an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) if it’s available and you know how to use it

  • Call an ambulance and rush to hospital

Diagnosing and treating anaphylaxis

At the hospital you may be given cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), an oxygen mask, epinephrine and antihistamines and steroids to relieve your symptoms and help you recover.

Once you have stabilised, blood tests and allergy tests may be carried out to confirm the diagnosis of anaphylaxis and to identify your triggers.

Anaphylaxis cannot be cured but has to be managed with diet and lifestyle changes. You can work with your doctor to develop an anaphylaxis emergency action plan.

If you have a serious allergy or have experienced anaphylaxis before, you can prevent future episodes by doing the following:

  1. Identify the trigger and avoid exposure to it:

    • If you have a food allergy, carefully read food labels and check for ingredients when eating out

    • If your allergy is related to insects, use an insect repellent and wear long pants and long-sleeved clothing when outdoors; avoid walking with bare feet

  2. Always carry an epinephrine auto-injector


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