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Anaphylaxis: Common Symptoms and Triggers

Practically everyone has heard about some unfortunate individual who was bitten by a bee and nearly died. This severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis (an-a-fi-LAX-is) and it is much more common than you may think. Anaphylaxis is a potentially fatal allergic reaction that comes on rapidly. It is usually triggered by foods, insect stings, and medications, though there are many other potential triggers as well.

Anaphylactic reactions run the spectrum from mild to lethal. Should you ever develop even a mild anaphylactic reaction, you should seek medical attention immediately. Typically, symptoms of anaphylaxis begin within minutes to an hour after exposure to the trigger, though on occasion the symptoms may not develop for several hours after exposure. In severe forms, a person may collapse suddenly with no prior symptoms.

A minority of people with anaphylaxis have a two-phase reaction in which they improve, only to worsen again within hours, sometimes up to 3 days later, even without repeated exposure to the trigger. Rarely, a person may have a prolonged anaphylactic reaction in which symptoms last hours or days even though they receive appropriate treatment.

The first step in recognizing anaphylaxis is knowing what symptoms may represent this severe allergic reaction. The list of potential symptoms associated with anaphylaxis is long, but the most common symptoms include the following:
Swelling of the lips or mouth
Shortness of breath
Very low blood pressure, which commonly leads to dizziness, blurred vision, or fainting

Other common symptoms include:
Itching of the skin or eyes
Flushing of the skin
Swelling around the eyes
Increased tear production
Eye redness
Runny nose
Change of voice
Nasal congestion
A metallic taste
Tightness of the chest
Persistent coughing
An abnormal heart rate
Abdominal cramping

The list of potential anaphylaxis triggers is extensive, ranging including, but certainly not limited to the following:
Food additives
Aspirin or ibuprofen
Allergy shots
Cold temperatures

Obviously, it is not realistic to avoid every potential trigger and, as noted above, many of the symptoms are nonspecific and can be related to other issues. For instance, sneezing, runny nose, and nasal congestion are far, far more likely to be due to the common cold than to an anaphylactic reaction. Likewise, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are more likely to be due to a viral infection or food poisoning than to anaphylaxis.

Nevertheless, should you develop any concerning symptoms, especially severe dizziness, shortness of breath, or swelling in or around the mouth, call 911 immediately. True anaphylactic reactions can be rapidly fatal. A simple epinephrine injection can save your life, so do not hesitate to seek immediate medical attention if you are the least bit concerned about any symptoms you feel could be related to an anaphylactic reactions, especially if they are temporally related to a common trigger. A rapid response may save your life.

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Content copyright © 2013 by A. Maria Hester, M.D.. All rights reserved.
This content was written by A. Maria Hester, M.D.. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Patricia Villani, MPA, PhD for details.

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