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Anaphylaxis: Learn the Signs. Act Immediately.

Allergies, especially food allergies, are becoming more common, and the risk of the most serious, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction may be rising too.

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal if appropriate steps aren’t taken immediately. It can begin within seconds or minutes after exposure to an allergen and is almost always unexpected.

The most common triggers are food (particularly peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, milk, and eggs). When coming in contact with an allergen, the immune system releases a lot of chemicals to fight off a substance, causing blood pressure to drop and airways to narrow, making it hard to breathe. The response goes from bad to worse rapidly and can only be stopped with the right medication – an injection of epinephrine (EpiPen).

The first signs of anaphylaxis include skin reaction, such as red hives; flushed or pale skin; difficulty breathing; swelling of the lips and throat; a weak, rapid pulse; dizziness; nausea and vomiting; cardiac arrest and unconsciousness.

Risk factors include previous anaphylactic reaction, the presence of allergies or asthma, pre-existing heart disease, and specific immunological disorders (mastocytosis).

Emergency epinephrine needs to be administered in the first few minutes after the reaction begins to be most effective. It relieves life-threatening symptoms quickly – swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, and low blood pressure. However, it should only be given if the person was prescribed the medication.

After any use of epinephrine, a person must seek emergency medical assistance right away. An epinephrine injection can relieve symptoms at the moment, but the anaphylactic reaction can return hours or even days after an epinephrine injection was given.

Once an anaphylactic reaction happened, the goal is to avoid the substance that caused the reaction. If you are not sure what triggered your reaction, see a specialist for a skin or blood test to identify your allergen.

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