What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that occurs after exposure to an allergen. It happens very quickly; symptoms usually present within a few minutes, and will often even appear immediately after exposure. Epinephrine is currently the only medication available that treats anaphylaxis, and if it’s not administered quickly, anaphylaxis can be deadly.


There isn’t just one cause of anaphylaxis because it all depends on the substances you’re allergic to. If you’re severely allergic to bees, a bee sting could cause anaphylaxis. If you’re severely allergic to dairy, eating something with trace amounts of milk could cause anaphylaxis.  

The reaction is caused by your body identifying the allergen as dangerous. Your immune system fights the allergen with antibodies as though it’s a threat to your body. The antibodies release chemicals like histamine that cause the body to go into shock. If it were a mild reaction, a simple antihistamine could reverse the effect, but with anaphylaxis, you have to administer epinephrine.


The symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction include:
  • Lump in the throat
  • Feeling of warmth
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Hives, itching, or swelling
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weak and rapid pulse
How do you know if an allergic reaction is anaphylaxis or just isolated symptoms? If any severe symptoms occur, you should treat the reaction with epinephrine as if it’s anaphylaxis. Severe symptoms include trouble breathing, faintness, dizziness, weak pulse, significant swelling, hives, rash, vomiting, diarrhea, or a feeling of doom or dread. If there are several mild symptoms from different body areas, you should also treat the reaction as anaphylaxis. For example, if someone has both an itchy mouth and mild nausea, treat them with epinephrine.


The only treatment for anaphylaxis is epinephrine, which needs to be administered as soon as possible. Some people have such severe allergies that they need to be injected with epinephrine immediately after realizing they’ve interacted with an allergen, even if no symptoms have presented yet.

People who have severe allergies should carry an epinephrine autoinjector with them at all times. Although autoinjectors can become defective if they’re not stored at room temperature, it’s still safer to carry one or more autoinjectors with you in case you have a severe allergic reaction. 

Most autoinjectors work by simply shoving the injector against the thigh, though some can just be pressed into the thigh. After you’ve administered epinephrine, call 911 or your local emergency service immediately. 

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Anaphylaxis.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. January 16, 2013. Web.
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