What is Anaphylaxis: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

What is Anaphylaxis: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment
Page content

What is Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis, sometimes known as anaphylactic shock, can be described as an extreme whole body allergic reaction. While rare, it causes approximately 500 deaths a year. Symptoms generally appear over a 24 hour period, but may develop rapidly. Anaphylaxis is dangerous and requires immediate medical care.


Anaphylaxis occurs when the body overreacts to allergens and releases protective substances, such as histamines. Causes range from foods to medicines. Some of the most common causes include the following:


  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Shellfish


  • Aspirin
  • Penicillin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Codeine


  • Gloves
  • Syringes
  • Medical equipment
  • Adhesive tapes

Insect Stings

  • Honeybees
  • Hornets
  • Wasps
  • Yellow jackets
  • Fire ants


Early symptoms can resemble a normal allergic reaction and include a rash, itching, runny nose or an ‘off’ feeling. As anaphylaxis progresses, symptoms can rapidly worsen. The following symptoms could indicate anaphylaxis:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Tight or swelling throat
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty speaking or a hoarse voice
  • Hives
  • Vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Wheezing
  • Fainting
  • Cardiac arrest

Should any of these symptoms develop, seek immediate medical care. Those with known allergies or who have experiences anaphylaxis previously should wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace and carry emergency medicine, known as an Epi-Pen.


Anaphylaxis can be prevented by avoiding all known allergens. Make sure your medical care providers are aware of any allergies to medicine or latex. Check all food labels if you have any food allergies. Ask what is in foods before you eat them at restaurants, holidays, potlucks, or any other gathering with prepared dishes. Don’t wear cologne, perfume, or scented products, such as lotion. They can attract bees. Long sleeved shirts, long pants and closed shoes can also help prevent insect stings. You can have tests done by a specialist to identify allergens to help you avoid them. Speak to your doctor if you have any allergens and ask what is anaphylaxis and how at risk are you.


Epi-Pen (1)

Epinephrine shots, in the form of something like the Epi-Pen, should be given as soon as symptoms are identified. Anyone in anaphylaxis will need medical care even after the shot. Epinephrine acts quickly, but can wear off quickly, requiring further shots and medical care. Treatments include administration of antihistamines and corticosteroids. In severe cases, patients may be put on a ventilator to help with breathing. Treatment will also include methods to stabilize blood pressure.


University of Maryland Medial Center: Anaphylaxis - https://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/anaphylaxis-000008.htm

American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: Overview of Anaphylaxis - https://www.acaai.org/patients/resources/anaphylaxis/Pages/anaphylaxis-overview.aspx

The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network: Anaphylaxis - https://www.foodallergy.org/section/a

MedlinePlus: Anaphylaxis - https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000844.htm

MayoClinic.com: Anaphylaxis - https://www.mayoclinic.com/health/anaphylaxis/DS00009

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Intropin