Anaphylaxis is a rapid, severe allergic response that occurs when a person is exposed to allergen, an allergy-causing substance, to which he or she has been previously sensitized.  It is brought on when the allergen enters the bloodstream, causing the release of chemicals throughout the body that try to protect it from the foreign substance.



Anaphylaxis can affect various organ systems, including the skin, upper and lower respiratory tracts, cardiovascular system, eyes, uterus and bladder.

The initial symptoms may appear within a few seconds, or up to two hours after exposure.  Symptoms that signal the onset of an extreme allergic reaction include:

  • Itching of the skin and raised rashM (hives)
  • Flushing, swelling of the tissues of the lips, throat, tongue, hands and feet
  • Wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, hoarseness
  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps
  • Sense of impending doom, loss of consciousness

Anyone can experience anaphylaxis - not just those with known allergies to common causes.  Anaphylaxis poses a small, but significant risk to the public:

  • Risk of death from anaphylaxis for any one person is estimated to be about one percent.
  • One to two million people in the U.S. are estimated to be severely allergic to insect bites, resulting in 40 - 100 deaths per year.

In rare cases, the cause is called idiopathic, or unknown.  However, anaphylaxis is most commonly triggered by:

  • Stings of bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants.
  • Foods, including peanuts, milk, eggs, shellfish, whitefish, and other nuts, as well as some food additives.
  • Medications, including certain antibiotics (most commonly peniccillin), as well as seizure medications, muscle relaxants, and even aspirin and non-steriodal anti-inflammatory agents.
  • Exercise

Extreme allergic reactions should never be minimized.  Because death can occur within minutes anaphylaxis requires immediate attention.

In addition, anaphylaxis must not be mistaken for other reactions which may have similar symptoms.  These reactions include:  hyperventilation, anxiety attack, alcohol intoxication and low blood sugar.



There is no specific test for anaphylaxis.  However, allergy testing can help determine what substances an individual may be allergic to, and provide guidance for the physician as to the severity of the allergy.  Diagnosis is based primarily on:

  • Medical history, including immediate past exposure to possible allergens
  • Physical examination
  • Response to treatment


Patient awareness and avoidance of triggering substances are key to avoiding severe allergic reactions.  However, patients who are susceptible should ask their physician about the drug epinephrine (adrenaline) and learn how to self-administer this medication for the treatment of anaphylaxis whether from insect stings, foods, medications, or other allergens.

Epinephrine works directly on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to counter the potentially fatal effects of anaphylaxis by rapidly constricting the blood vessels, relaxing muscles in the lungs to improve breathing , reversing swelling and stimulating the heartbeat.  The sooner the allergic reaction is treated, the greater the likelihood of survival.

The availability of epinephrine in an easy-to-use, self-administered drug delivery system has greatly improved anaphylaxis treatment.  A self-administered, auto-injector provides emergency treatment without syringes.  This disposable system, when simply jabbed against the outer thigh, delivers a pre-loaded dose of epinephrine.  The rapid action and concealed needle minimize apprehension and provide the lifesaving medication with little or no pain.

So remember, with just a little preparation and awareness, you can reduce your risk of extreme allergic emergency - and stay safe!



The best treatment for anaphylaxis is prevention, by avoiding substances and situations that are known to trigger extreme allergic reactions.

Follow these tips to help reduce your risk of anaphylaxis from insect bites:

  • Avoid areas where stinging and biting insects congregate and nest
  • When outdoors, keep foods covered
  • Regularly clean outdoor eating, barbeque and garbage areas
  • Mow lawns and tend to gardens with caution to avoid disturbing insect nests
  • Avoid perfume, sprays and lotions, which attract insects
  • Avoid bright colors and bold or flowered print clothing
  • Avoid public trash baskets
  • Use non-allergenic insect repellents; keep an insecticide aerosol in the car.

For drug, food and exercise anaphylaxis, the only advice is to avoid the substance or activity known to cause the reaction.  In the case of severe food allergies, it is always a good idea to take that extra step:  when in a restaurant, alert the waiter to any food allergies, and when shopping be sure to read labels to identify unsuspected ingredients.

If you think you may have a life=threatening allergic condition, see your physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.  As with any medical condition, see your physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.  Make sure your doctor knows your complete medical history.  In addition, you should carry medical identification, in the form of a card and/or bracelet.