Anaphylaxis is a sudden, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. The symptoms may begin mildly but quickly become severe, often in a matter of seconds to minutes; occasionally, though, the symptoms develop gradually over a 24-hour period. The more rapidly the symptoms begin, the more severe they generally are. Anaphylaxis may occur again the next time a person is exposed to an allergen (allergy trigger). The first exposure to a trigger generally lays the groundwork for anaphylaxis by creating hypersensitivity. Anaphylaxis should always be considered a medical emergency, and you should seek help right away. It is estimated to be responsible for 500 deaths each year.
Signs and Symptoms
- Itching (often the first symptom), redness, hives, swelling, sweating
- Swelling in the nose or throat, hoarseness, wheezing, difficulty speaking, trouble breathing, chest tightness
- Abnormal heart rate or rhythm, shock, heart attack
- Stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Loss of bladder or bowel control, an urgent feeling of needing to go to the bathroom
- Tingling, headache, light-headedness, feeling disoriented or feeling a sense of doom, fainting, seizures
What Causes It?
Anaphylaxis occurs when the immune system overreacts to an allergen that you have encountered at least once before. Occasionally, through a different mechanism, an anaphylactic-like reaction (called anaphylactoid reaction) occurs with the very first exposure to the allergen. Symptoms are the same for both anaphylaxis and anaphylactoid reactions. Symptoms develop when cells release substances that are meant to protect you against the allergen.
Examples of anaphylaxis triggers include:
- Aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen), and prescription opiate pain medications (such as codeine); people with asthma and nasal polyps tend to be at greater risk for an anaphylactoid reaction to these drugs
- Foods, such as nuts, shellfish, egg whites, and berries; those who react to ragweed may also react to chamomile tea
- Insect bites or stings
- Egg-based vaccines
- Ingredients in some allergy skin tests, allergy shots, and vaccines
- Blood transfusions
- Latex (as in condoms, rubber gloves)
- Food coloring and preservatives (such as tartrazine, also known as FDC yellow dye No. 5)
- Although rare, athletes may have an anaphylactoid reaction to exercise after eating certain foods, such as celery, shrimp, apples, squid, wheat, hazelnut, or chicken; this reaction is thought to be related to endorphins
Who's Most At Risk?
The following factors may increase your risk for anaphylaxis:
- Known allergies
- Initial exposure to the allergen by injection (intravenous medication)
- Frequent exposure to the allergen, particularly if frequent exposure is followed by a long delay and then a reexposure
- Taking beta-blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs)—medications used to treat heart disease or high blood pressure
NOTE: We highly recommend that you have a complete medical evaluation done anytime you have a medical concern. Medical professionals are well trained to identify serious medical conditions. It's recommended that you fully describe your symptoms to your doctor, then work with her/him through to the correct diagnosis.
While there are many anxiety-like medical conditions, most conditions have uniquely identifiable symptoms UNCOMMON to anxiety. If you have seen your doctor and he/she has ruled out this anxiety-like medical condition, you can feel confident that their diagnosis is correct. If, however, you feel he/she has missed something, you should persist with your doctor until you are satisfied. You may also want to get second and even third opinions if you are still unsatisfied.
Because it is common for anxiety sufferers to 'over worry' about their symptoms (since so many conditions produce anxiety-like symptoms we often scare ourselves when we look at all of the conditions we COULD have), having a thorough medical evaluation completed will most often alleviate these fears.
For a more detailed explanation about all anxiety symptoms, why symptoms can persist long after the stress response has ended, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - we call these core causes the underlying factors of anxiety - a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.
For more information about our Anxiety Therapy, Coaching, Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Symptoms of Anxiety; Anxiety Attack Symptoms; anxiety Recovery Support area; common Anxiety Myths; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate graphic below:
Return to our anxiety symptoms page.
Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated June 2015.