Return to Previous Page

How to Handle an Allergy Emergency

Allergy image

More than 50 million Americans have some type of allergy. While the condition often makes people uncomfortable, it’s rarely dangerous unless it results in an allergic emergency. Then, allergies can be deadly.

The medical term for an allergic emergency is anaphylaxis. The condition is as serious as it sounds. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening, severe allergic reaction that comes on suddenly and may affect many parts of the body at once. People who have allergies or asthma are at increased risk for anaphylaxis, but anyone can have a severe allergic reaction.

The symptoms of anaphylaxis include

  • hives, itchiness, and redness on the skin, lips, eyelids, or other parts of the body;
  • wheezing or difficulty breathing; h swelling of the tongue, throat, and nose;
  • nausea, stomach cramping, and vomiting or diarrhea; and
  • dizziness and fainting or loss of consciousness, which can lead to shock and heart failure.

Some or all of these symptoms can occur within minutes after exposure, or may develop up to two hours later. Sometimes a second reaction may occur eight to twelve hours after the first. The sooner the reaction is treated, the less severe it is likely to become.

The medical term for an allergic emergency is anaphylaxis.

The most common triggers of an allergic emergency include the following:

Peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, pecans, cashews, walnuts), fish, shellfish, cow’s milk, and eggs top the list among food triggers, causing about half of all cases of anaphylaxis each year. Peanut or tree nut allergies are the most common.

Insect Stings
More than 500,000 Americans go to hospital emergency rooms each year because of allergic reactions to stings from insects such as bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and fire ants.

Penicillin is the medication that most commonly causes anaphylaxis, but other drugs, such as aspirin, anesthetics, antibiotics, and pain relievers like ibuprofen also can cause a reaction.

Up to six percent of Americans are allergic to the latex used in disposable gloves, intravenous tubes, syringes, and other products, with healthcare workers, other workers who routinely wear gloves, and children with spina bifida at greatest risk of latex-induced anaphylaxis.

Most severe allergic emergencies or anaphylactic reactions are treated with a shot of the anti-allergy drug epinephrine (adrenaline). Other treatments also may be needed depending on the symptoms.

Be S.A.F.E.
If you are at risk of a severe allergic reaction, you should know the four steps to manage your condition and keep you S.A.F.E.

Seek immediate medical help
Call 911 and get to the nearest emergency facility at the first sign of anaphylaxis, even if you have already administered epinephrine. If you have had an anaphylactic reaction in the past, you are at risk of future reactions.

⋄ Identify the Allergen
Think about what you might have eaten or been exposed to – food, insect sting, medication or latex – to trigger an allergic reaction. It is particularly important to identify the cause, when possible, because the best way to prevent anaphylaxis is to avoid allergic triggers.

Follow up with a specialist
Ask your doctor for a referral to an allergist/immunologist, a physician who specializes in treating asthma and allergies. It is important that you consult an allergist for testing, diagnosis, and ongoing management of your allergic disease.

⋄ Carry Epinephrine for emergencies
Kits containing fast-acting, self-administered epinephrine are commonly prescribed for people who are at risk of anaphylaxis. Make sure that you carry an epinephrine kit with you at all times, and that family and friends know of your condition and your triggers, as well as how to use epinephrine. Consider wearing an emergency medical bracelet or necklace identifying yourself as a person at risk of anaphylaxis. Teachers and other caregivers should be informed of children who are at risk for anaphylaxis and should know what to do in an allergic emergency.


The more you know about your condition, the more able you will be to prevent or minimize future reactions. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology has additional information on anaphylaxis prevention tips, other allergy facts, and an easy-to-use allergist locator at

Source: American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2011.