Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur within seconds to minutes of exposure to an allergen. Symptoms usually involve more than one organ system or part of the body, including the lungs (shortness of breath and wheezing), the skin (rash or hives; swelling of the lips, tongue or throat), the gastrointestinal system (diarrhea or vomiting), or cardiovascular system (drop in blood pressure leading to dizziness or loss of consciousness).
The incidence of anaphylaxis has increased five times over the past decade, particularly as a result of food allergies in children. Common allergic triggers to food include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, shellfish, and sesame seeds. Medications can also trigger anaphylaxis, and frequent offenders include aspirin, NSAIDS, antibiotics, radio-contrast media, and latex. Insect stings are another common cause.
The most important way to treat anaphylaxis is to avoid exposure to known allergens, and allergy skin testing can help confirm specific allergies. If an allergen is encountered, triggering anaphylaxis, Epinephrine (Epipen) is a shot that can immediately reverse life-threatening symptoms. Patients with severe allergies should never be without access to this life-saving treatment.
Allergy immunotherapy can be an effective way to decrease the sensitivity of allergic individuals to accidental exposure to allergens, thereby avoiding the life-threatening symptoms of anaphylaxis. Stinging insect allergies respond well to being treated in this manner, and there is new hope for peanut-allergic patients in the form of oral immunotherapy that decreases sensitivity to peanut exposure and can prevent anaphylaxis from accidental exposure.