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Saying no to nuts

What is anaphylaxis and how can you treat it?

29 Nov 2022


Peanuts and seafood may not be dangerous to most people, but to some they can be life-threatening. Find out more about this severe, allergic reaction with our guide to the causes and treatments of anaphylaxis, also known as anaphylactic shock.

What are common signs of anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis causes the mouth, throat and tongue to swell which can lead to difficulties swallowing or breathing. The swelling can also affect the hands, feet, eyes and lips as well as causing a raised, red rash or itchy skin. Nausea and vomiting are also common signs. Sufferers often feel confused, lightheaded or faint and in some cases, they can collapse and lose consciousness.

How is anaphylaxis different from milder allergic reactions?

Allergies cause the immune system to identify certain harmless substances as a threat. In most cases, this causes an allergic reaction in a particular part of the body, such as the eyes, nose or skin. In anaphylaxis, the allergy isn’t limited to a few parts of the body. This means that this rare and severe allergic reaction that can affect the whole body within minutes. In some sufferers, the reaction can happen up to a few hours after they come into contact with a trigger. As this condition is potentially life-threatening, sufferers should avoid triggers as much as possible to reduce their chances of a reaction.

What are common triggers of anaphylaxis?

Allergens differ for each person but there are some widespread causes that affect people who have anaphylactic episodes. Insect stings are the most common cause, in particular bee and wasp stings. Foods like shellfish, dairy products, eggs and tree nuts like cashews, almonds, walnuts and Brazil nuts are also typical triggers. Peanuts are responsible for more than half of anaphylactic reactions that are linked to food. These reactions can also be related to medicine such as antibiotics or general anaesthetic. Another common causes is natural latex used in condoms and gloves.

Who is at risk of anaphylaxis?

Although allergic reactions are becoming increasingly common, extreme anaphylactic reactions are quite rare. Those with other allergic conditions, like eczema or uncontrolled asthma, have been identified as being most at risk. People who have previously had an anaphylactic reaction also have an increased chance of having another one in the future. There is currently no test available to confirm if someone has a higher chance of anaphylaxis.

What causes an anaphylactic reaction?

Like other allergic reactions, anaphylaxis is caused by the immune system overreacting to a harmless substance. The substances that trigger allergic reactions are called allergens. The immune system mistakenly responds to the allergen as if it is a threat. During anaphylaxis, the allergen triggers chemical substances such as histamine to be released. These chemicals cause severe symptoms like swelling of throat and mouth which is commonly associated with an anaphylactic reaction.

How is anaphylaxis treated?

Anaphylactic reactions are life-threatening, but deaths are rare with most people making a full recovery when they receive the right medical treatment as quickly as possible. An adrenaline auto-injector such as an EpiPen should be used as soon as someone begins experiencing symptoms. If there is no adrenaline injector available, ring an ambulance straight away. Adrenaline reduces the swelling caused by anaphylaxis and opens the airways. If you have been diagnosed with anaphylaxis, keep your auto-injector with you at all times. Make sure that you and the people close to you know how to use it properly in case you lose consciousness during a reaction. Hospital observation is normally required even after adrenaline is given. This is because symptoms can occasionally return within 12 hours.

How can you prevent anaphylaxis?

After your first episode of anaphylaxis, it is important to identify what triggered the reaction in the first place. Knowing which allergens to avoid will help you prevent it from happening again. Specialist allergy clinics can usually carry out tests to find out what you are allergic to. These tests can include blood tests or skin prick tests and are usually painless with quick results. Once your allergen has been identified, keeping away from it should become part of everyday life.

How can allergens be avoided?

Make a point of checking food labels for specific food allergens and if you’re eating out at a restaurant, let staff know about your allergies. Manage medicine allergies by telling healthcare professionals about them so they can provide suitable alternatives. If you’re allergic to insect bites or stings, use an insect repellent when you’re spending time outdoors, especially in the summer when you have a higher risk of being stung.

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