Anaphylaxis is a severe and harmful allergic reaction that can result in a life-threatening condition called anaphylactic shock. Onset is often swift and sudden, within minutes or even a few seconds after exposure to an allergen such as food, an insect bite, venom or medication.
The body produces large amounts of histamine which trigger an inflammatory response that can dilate the blood vessels and cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and shock. The airways narrow, making breathing difficult. The blood vessels may leak, producing edema (swelling due to fluid build-up under the skin) in surrounding tissue.
The main cause of anaphylaxis outside of the hospital is food allergy. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases estimated that approximately 5 percent of children and 4 percent of adults in America have a food allergy.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Skin reactions, including hives and itching and flushed or pale skin
- Low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Constriction of the airways
- Swollen tongue or throat which can cause wheezing and labored breathing
- A weak and rapid pulse
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Dizziness or fainting
Ben Fitzgerald, father of two children with peanut allergies, told the sobering tale of what happened when his 3-year-old son Liam almost died from eating peanuts brought by another child in his playgroup in February 2015.
It was a classic mix-up: whoever packed the other kid’s snack violated the “nut-free environment” set up there to protect kids with these common (and potentially fatal) food allergies and included a trail mix containing Cheerios, Shreddies, Pretzels, Cheese Sticks, almonds, and peanuts. Wouldn’t you just know that Liam’s snack mix would be the same – without the almonds and peanuts, that is. And these two kids were sitting side by side.
The inevitable happened. Liam began to show the classic signs of an allergic reaction. Of course, his parents had carefully packed his epinephrine auto-injectors in his bag.
But this was to no avail. The three staffers failed to pick up on the fact that Liam was in “obvious discomfort; irritated, itching and scratching.” They told the concerned Fitzgerald parents that they hadn’t seen Liam eat any nuts.
Thinking they had time to drive home and give Liam some Benadryl, the family headed home. In those five minutes, Liam’s outbreaks “went from individual hives to clusters.” As the parents phoned the family physician to relay symptoms, Liam began “vomiting aggressively.”
Then the clusters disappeared underneath rapid swelling which raised his skin “above where the clusters were just only seconds earlier.”
Now thoroughly panicked and fearing for their son’s life, the Fitzgeralds “rushed to the hospital with four unused epinephrine auto-injectors in hand.”
It took three rounds of epinephrine and six needles in total, including an IV, to save the life of 40-pound Liam. The family called the hospital staff “heroes.”
Liam, like any person with a food allergy, has an immune system which reacts to certain proteins found in food, attacking these substances as if they were intrusive pathogens – a bacterium or virus. The immune system attacks proteins in foods that are harmless to most other people.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has studied up on food allergies and reports that an astonishing 170 foods have been associated with allergic reactions.
Those 170 food-based allergens fall into eight major food categories that, together, are responsible for most of the serious food allergy reactions in the U.S.:
- Tree nuts
- Crustacean shellfish
If you or someone you know has a known food allergy, especially a child, take these steps to prevent anaphylaxis when others are present who could help seek immediate medical care and, perhaps, save a life:
- Advertise the allergy with a medical alert bracelet
- Put peanut caution signs on all food containers
- Create a caregiver action plan for anyone who provides care to your children
- Visit any location that you do drop-offs in advance, such as sports arenas.
- Know how and when to use the epinephrine auto-injector – and being certain to educate those who are responsible for doing so in your absence
Considering the fact that, according to FARE, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room every three minutes, be ever-watchful and proactive to safeguard your health, and that of your family, friends, and perfect strangers, through preparedness and education.