HealthONE - December 12, 2017

You may have a friend or co-worker who has a peanut allergy, or your child's school may have a ban on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What's the big deal about a peanut? It may sound simple, but peanut and other severe allergies can cause an emergency trip to the ER-- or even death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 50 million Americans have allergies. Around 200,000 a year will experience a severe allergic reaction as a result of foods, insect stings or even medications. Commonly known as anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, these types of allergic reactions can be life threatening.

What is an allergic reaction?

An allergic reaction is your body's way of protecting you from foreign substances called allergens. Common allergens that can lead to anaphylaxis include peanuts, shellfish, antibiotics, and some insect bites or stings. In response to these foreign invaders, your immune system produces antibodies that attack allergens. While some people may have no trouble at all, others experience a strong immune response to certain allergens. In severe cases, the very same reaction meant to keep you safe can actually cause you harm.

What is anaphylactic shock?

Not everyone who has allergies will experience anaphylactic shock, or anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is the most serious allergic reaction a person can have and may begin with a minor allergic reaction the first time a person is exposed to an allergen. To prepare for another allergen encounter, the immune system builds more antibodies over time and results in a more severe reaction.  

The onset of anaphylaxis happens within minutes of coming into contact with an allergen and affects the entire body. Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, low blood pressure, swelling, hives, itching and a rash.

What treatment options are available?

While steroids and antihistamines may help treat non-life-threatening allergic reactions, epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, treats severe allergic reactions in emergency situations. If you have a severe allergy, your doctor can prescribe an EpiPen®, which is epinephrine in the form of an auto-injector. While an epinephrine injector may stop an allergic reaction, you should still go the ER to avoid the risk of a secondary reaction, which can occur eight or more hours later. Ask your doctor if an epinephrine injector is right for you, and use a practice injector if your doctor prescribes an EpiPen®.

If you or someone you know experiences symptoms of anaphylactic shock, take the situation seriously and call 911 right away.