What is Anaphylaxis?

“What is anaphylaxis?” is a common question in food allergy circles. Anaphylaxis is the first and most severe of four types of oral hypersensitivity reactions (or allergic reactions.) It’s the most common reaction among those with food allergies.

Though this article deals only with Type 1, here is the list of all four hypersensitivity reactions, for reference:

Type 1 – Anaphylactic reaction (also called immediate hypersensitivity)
Type 2 – Cytotoxic reaction
Type 3 – Immune complex reaction
Type 4 – Cell-mediated reaction (also called delayed hypersensitivity)

What is anaphylaxis compared to the other 3 types? For information on Types 2-4, view this article from dentalcare.com.

Why is it Called Anaphylaxis?

The word’s origin is based on the union of two Greek words: ana which means “against” and phylaxis which means “guarding.”

What is Anaphylaxis – an Overview

People with varying degrees of food allergies are often at risk of experiencing an anaphylactic reaction when they consume foods that are harmful to them. As mentioned above, anaphylaxis is the most serious allergic reaction of the four types. The reaction manifests itself quickly, typically within minutes and sometimes within seconds of food entering the mouth.

Depending on the degree that a person is allergic to a particular food, this reaction can be quite severe, even life-threatening in some cases. Because these reactions are so sudden and fast, they are often referred to as an anaphylactic shock. Mild allergy symptoms include rashes, a runny nose, or watering eyes. Anaphylaxis is much more serious than these decidedly non-life-threatening reactions, though these mild symptoms can quickly progress to a full-on hypersensitive reaction.

Harmful food consumption isn’t the only event that causes anaphylactic reactions for those who are allergic. Insect venom (bee stings), latex, and even specific medications can cause them, as well.

What Happens During Anaphylaxis?

When you consume a particular food or substance that you’re biologically predisposed to reject due to allergens, the body will often react to this event in an overly-protective way. Your immune system unleashes an abundance of chemicals in an attempt to protect itself from the harmful, foreign invader. This can cause airways in the throat to narrow and even collapse entirely which obstructs breathing. It can also cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, among other conditions. When learning what is anaphylaxis, really, it’s important to know the symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms of Anaphylaxis?

Here’s a list of the most common symptoms, including the ones already mentioned:

Hypotension (low blood pressure)
Itchy skin
Flushed skin
Pale skin
Slow pulse
Rapid pulse
Swollen throat
Swollen tongue
Labored breathing

How Do You Treat Anaphylaxis?

When you or someone near you go into anaphylactic shock, an epinephrine injection must be administered immediately. You may have heard of an Epi-Pen. This is what they’re used for. In most cases, a dose from an Epi-Pen as well as a precautionary trip to the emergency room is in order. If an epinephrine shot is not available during the onset of anaphylaxis, getting to a hospital or calling 911 ASAP is critical.

Never assume that the symptoms will die down on their own. Use the Epi-Pen and then get to a medical facility as quickly as possible. This is because even after a person has an anaphylactic reaction and is treated with epinephrine, there is still a risk of biphasic anaphylaxis. This is a second, recurring flare-up that can still take place even after Epi-Pen use, sometimes up to 12 hours later. It’s not worth the risk. Get professional treatment right away, no matter what precautions you were able to take on your own.

Be aware that if a person of any age experiences even a mild anaphylactic reaction to something, that person is at risk of having another, harsher reaction in the future. Any degree of allergic reaction should be taken seriously, particularly if it’s strong. The answer to “what is anaphylaxis” must include an understanding of how to treat it.

What is Epinephrine and Why Does it Work?

Epinephrine (aka adrenaline) is a naturally-occurring substance in the human body. It influences metabolism, muscle contraction and relaxation, as well as feelings of awareness, fear, and energy. When a concentrated dose is injected into the bloodstream, airway swelling is reduced and blood flow is increased. The epinephrine signals veins to constrict and muscles to relax, causing the effects of anaphylaxis to subside.

When discussing what is anaphylaxis, It’s important to remember that a shot from an Epi-Pen is not a permanent solution. Those affected need to get to a hospital as quickly as possible to ensure that the effects of the allergic reaction are tempered completely.

Managing Anaphylaxis

As previously mentioned, a person can have any level of allergic reaction to a particular allergen. If you or someone you care for has a food allergy of any kind, it’s best to see a doctor by appointment who specializes in immunology and allergies. This will allow you to get a proper diagnosis of your own allergies and give you the tools necessary to manage them long-term. There are even immunotherapy and desensitization treatments available.

What Causes Anaphylaxis?

The most common allergens among children are milk, shellfish, fish, tree nuts, and peanuts. For adults, the list is similar but also includes insect venom (fire ants, hornets, wasps, yellowjackets, bees), some IVs, pain relievers, antibiotics, and other medications. Though both children and adults can be allergic to anything just mentioned, statistically there’s a division of allergen types between the two groups due to the many children that grow out of their food allergies.

The full number of foreign substances that can cause anaphylaxis are too numerous to list. This is because there are rare cases where a person has a rare allergy to something unusual.

The majority of allergic reactions are not life-threatening and do not result in anaphylaxis. This is because the human body is adept at producing the right amount of antibodies to combat the foreign substance, like a virus or bacteria. Severe allergic reactions happen when the body quite literally overreacts in its plan of attack. What is anaphylaxis? You’d be correct by describing it as your immune system overreacting.

Latex and Other Less-Common Allergens

Though nowhere near as common as food allergies, hypersensitive reactions to latex is somewhat common. Latex is found in many common items such as sports equipment, raincoats and underwear, pacifiers and baby bottles, paint, toys, medical gloves, bandages, shoes, rubber bands, condoms, and balloons. Even some brands of diapers and napkins contain latex.

A number of common physical activities that don’t involve coming in contact with anything have been known to cause anaphylaxis. Things like jogging, weight lifting, and other aerobic exercises. Another rare cause of hypersensitive reaction is weather, particularly when exercising. Exerting lots of physical energy amid humid, cold, or hot weather does account for a number of anaphylaxis cases. Again, these are rare but are worth mentioning. It’s especially important to see a specialist if you have a rare allergy like this.

Identifying Allergies Before Experiencing an Episode

If you’re wondering whether or not you are actually allergic to something and you would prefer to find out about it before risking something like anaphylaxis, set up an appointment with an allergist or immunologist. There are multiple tests that can be done to determine what you’re allergic to if anything. The most common test involves making small pricks on the back or forearm and applying small water droplets infused with common allergens. The area will react if you’re allergic. What is anaphylaxis for you could be different from someone else.

Are You at Risk?

Studies have shown that a large number of children and adults with asthma also have moderate-to-severe allergies of some kind. The same results have been found in those with heart disease.

Taking Preventative Measures

Obviously, if you have suspicions or confirmation that you or a loved one are allergic to something, stay away from it. If you have experienced anaphylaxis after contact with a food or substance, consider wearing an official bracelet, necklace, or other medical alert accessories that communicate your severe allergy to others.

It would be wise to make sure you always have a customized treatment kit with you (or nearby) in case of an unforeseen allergic reaction. The kit should include epinephrine shots as well as any necessary medication associated with your allergy. Make sure that you’ve checked the expiration dates of your injectors and get refills when necessary.

Any time you visit a new doctor, or any time you see a doctor for a reason unrelated to your allergies, make sure to be thorough in your explanations of any meds that have caused hypersensitive reactions.

Preventative Measures – Insect Venom

If your allergy involves insect venom, you may need to consider any of the following measures: avoid drinking from soda cans that have already been opened, perhaps don’t wear scented lotions, colognes, or perfumes, wear clothing that isn’t vivid or bright, always wear shoes when walking outside, don’t wear shorts or short-sleeved shirts.

Preventative Measures – Food Allergies

For those with food allergies, you must get in the habit of examining food labels before purchasing anything from the grocery store, gas station, etc. You’ll need to be more selective about entrées you order when eating out. You may even need to ask specific questions of the restaurant staff to make sure that you don’t become the victim of cross-contamination which can cause unintended allergic reactions.

Over time, you’ll get better at knowing what to look out for, what foods contain what, how certain dishes are prepared, etc. The more knowledge you gather on a regular basis, the better equipped you’ll be to avoid every possible risk in all different situations. Even ingesting the smallest amount of an allergen can be serious and can possibly cause anaphylaxis. Arm yourself with all the information that you feel is necessary.

What is Anaphylaxis? – Conclusion

If you’re still looking for even more detailed information about anaphylaxis and the other 3 types of hypersensitive reactions, there are many places online – foodallergy.org and anaphylaxis.org.uk, to name two.

Now, when someone asks you, “What is anaphylaxis?”, you’ll be able to educate them. We’ll leave you with one more thing.

Lastly: a scientific explanation of Immediate Hypersensitivity, or Anaphylactic Reaction

Here is a slightly more in-depth and technical answer to the question “What is anaphylaxis?”

This first type of reaction is always either localized or systemic, as seen in erythema, wheal, and hives (all examples of allergic dermatitis). Anaphylaxis occurs when a membrane-bound IgE antibody cross-links with an antigen. During an anaphylactic reaction, the body releases lipid mediators, bradykinin, serotonin, and histamine. When released in large amounts, as is always the case during a Type 1 reaction, tissue damage is the result. The tissue damage manifests itself in the form of skin discoloration, such as rashes, hives, etc.

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what is anaphylaxis

What is Anaphylaxis? (A Complete Explanation)


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