Allergies are reported to be on the increase. No one is entirely sure why. It seems to be related to the rate at which societies across the world take on a more developed lifestyle, so may be affected by the foods we eat, the chemicals with which we come into contact, the cleanliness of our environment, or any combination of these. Whatever the cause, an allergy is a common condition that can range from annoying to life-threatening. The life-threatening state is when the allergy results in anaphylaxis.
What is Anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is derived from the Greek for overprotection. In any allergic reaction the body recognizes a normally harmless substance as a threat, and produces an inappropriate defensive response to it. Defensive cells called mast cells release histamine and other chemicals, which react with tissue cells, especially nerve endings and blood vessels. This is what causes itching, swelling, redness and the release of fluids.
Anaphylaxis takes this process a step further, and the defensive actions of the body go into overdrive. The result can be so much swelling in the airways that sufferers are unable to breathe. It can also cause swelling around the mouth, unbearable itching, cramps and pains in the digestive track, and heart palpitations.
What Triggers Anaphylaxis?
Any allergen (something which can cause an allergic reaction) is capable of causing anaphylaxis in a susceptible person. The most common causes are:
• Medicines: especially penicillin, aspirin and insulin
• Foods: especially nuts, peanuts, shellfish, milk, wheat, eggs, soy products, fish
• Insect bites and stings
Allergies, and therefore anaphylaxis, can develop at any time. It is possible to have an anaphylactic response as a first allergic reaction, but more commonly people have lesser allergic symptoms which later develop into a risk of anaphylaxis.
How Can I Avoid Anaphylaxis?
If you are at risk, the most important action is to know your allergens, and to be as careful as you can to avoid them. If you are allergic to certain medicines, learn the generic name and the most common brand names. Check the labels of any medicine carefully for your allergens.
If you have a food allergy, check lists of ingredients on packaging. In a restaurant, check with the staff for ingredients. If you are visiting someone, let them know what you cannot eat.
If you react to stings and bites, avoid situations where you might be exposed, for instance near to beehives or wasp nests.
Research is going on into ways to help people reduce their allergic responses, but at present there is no way to prevent anaphylaxis if the body is primed to respond in that way. It is a mistake for anyone to think that they are immune.
Anyone who thinks they may be at risk should discuss with a doctor the best course of action to manage their condition.
How Is Anaphylaxis Treated?
There is only one recommended treatment for anaphylaxis, which is a synthetic form of human adrenaline, called epinephrine. This is injected into the body at the first opportunity, where it stimulates the heart and reduces the symptoms of the anaphylaxis, crucially allowing the sufferer to breathe more normally.
Mostly epinephrine is delivered by an auto-injector, where the device is pressed against the thigh to effect the injection. This needs to be carried out as soon as possible after symptoms are noticed. There are different injectors available, and it is important to discuss with a doctor the right sort to carry. Also of course it is wise to talk to a doctor about the effect of epinephrine on any other medications you are using.
If someone has an anaphylactic shock, an ambulance should be called. It is extremely helpful for the emergency crew to know about the victim’s allergies and any other medical information. This is why it is advisable for people at risk to wear custom allergy bracelets which will alert those treating the condition. They also warn medical staff against using a known allergen to treat an unconscious patient. They are not expensive, can be attractive in appearance, and could save a life.
A Growing Problem
As the incidence of allergy increases in the population, so does the risk of anaphylactic shock, which is an extremely unpleasant experience, both for the sufferer and for others who witness it. The symptoms can come on within minutes or even seconds. Anyone with a known allergy is potentially exposed to an attack, and should take all possible precautions. Avoid the known allergens, carry an epinephrine injector, and wear an allergy bracelet.
Jeff Wilson is studying a degree in biology where he is focusing on allergens. A longtime hay-fever sufferer himself, Jeff enjoys sharing his research online in the hope to alleviate unnecessary suffering.