What Is Anaphylaxis? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

What is anaphylaxis and why do people go into shock over it? Read this lesson to learn exactly what anaphylaxis is, what causes it to happen, what the symptoms are, and how to treat it! Knowing this could save someone's life!

What is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction to something. Peanuts and bee stings are two common allergens that can cause anaphylaxis to occur. When an allergic reaction of this magnitude takes place, it can be life-threatening if people don't act quickly. When the body undergoes an allergic reaction to something, the immune system responds by releasing a flood of chemicals meant to fight the enemy. However, this flood of chemicals (that cause the actual symptoms of an allergic reaction) can cause the person to go into shock, which is where the term anaphylactic shock comes from. Shock itself means the blood pressure drops to dangerously low levels, and breathing is disrupted. Anaphylaxis can manifest itself by a rapid or weak pulse, a skin rash, nausea, or vomiting.

Symptoms of Anaphylaxis

We know that anaphylaxis is caused by an allergic reaction, but what symptoms appear? A specific allergen depends on the person, and may be a food, an insect bite or sting, a medication, or an item like latex. After exposure to the allergen, the immune system kicks into gear, and symptoms will generally appear within 30 minutes from the exposure. When symptoms do appear, they may appear as a skin rash or hives, itching, swelling in the throat or around the affected area, difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, paleness or redness, chest tightness, or even losing consciousness.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis vary by person and may not all appear at the same time.

Treatment Options

What do you do if someone is suffering from anaphylaxis? If they are already aware of their allergy, they may be able to direct you to medication they have on hand for such a situation. Epinephrine is usually needed to stop anaphylaxis from progressing. It works by stunting the body's allergic response. Other treatment options may be the administration of oxygen, intravenous (IV) fluids, or an inhaler. It's imperative to get the person (or yourself) to emergency medical care as soon as possible to ensure that the reaction has stopped. In severe cases, CPR may be necessary (if they stop breathing and their heart stops beating).

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