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Recognizing the first signs of a serious, life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) and taking immediate action with emergency medication can be the difference between life and death. If you or a loved one, especially a child, has a severe allergic reaction, every second counts.

Although the reasons why allergies develop aren’t known, there are some substances that commonly cause an allergic reaction. Allergies can develop over time or suddenly. People who have allergies are typically allergic to one or more of the following:

  • pet dander
  • bee stings or bites from other insects
  • foods, including nuts or shellfish
  • medications, such as penicillin or aspirin
  • plants
  • pollen or molds

The signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis (or a severe allergic reaction) can vary greatly from person to person as well as from time to time in the same person. Also, they may develop very quickly — within seconds of exposure to the allergen causing the reaction — or evolve over a longer period of time. 

The most common signs and symptoms of a severe allergic reaction that requires prompt intervention include:

  • hives/rash
  • flushed skin
  • difficulty breathing/wheezing
  • pain or tightness in the chest
  • swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
  • difficulty swallowing
  • abdominal cramping or pain
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness (vertigo)
  • fear or anxiety
  • nausea or vomiting
  • heart palpitations
  • weakness
  • unconsciousness

These symptoms can result in life-threatening symptoms, including swelling of the airway, inability to breathe, and a sudden and severe drop in blood pressure.

How to Treat Anaphylaxis: 

As soon as anaphylaxis is detected, call 9-1-1 immediately and administer epinephrine (also known as an EpiPen- if prescribed by your doctor) if available. Try to keep the person as calm as possible.

If you’re helping someone who is having an attack, reassure them that help is on the way. If they are feeling faint, have the person lay down on their back.

Treating anaphylaxis doesn’t end with injecting epinephrine, even if the person feels better. The next step is seeking medical care at an emergency room (ER). It is possible to have a secondary anaphylaxis reaction after you’ve survived the initial attack, and all seems well. The second attack can occur anywhere from 1 hour to 72 hours after the initial attack, but most commonly happens within 10 hours.