Serious Allergic Reactions (Anaphylaxis)

Serious Allergic Reactions (Anaphylaxis)

Kids with severe allergies can be at risk for a sudden, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This reaction can be frightening — a child may feel like his or her throat is closing or may faint, for example. But the good news is that, with the right action, it can be treated.

Anaphylaxis isn't common. But some kids with allergies are more at risk than others. So if your child has allergies, it's important to know about anaphylaxis and be prepared.

Signs of Anaphylaxis

Serious Allergic ReactionsAs with other allergies, anaphylaxis can trigger symptoms in any of these four body systems:

  1. skin
  2. gastrointestinal system
  3. respiratory system
  4. cardiovascular system

An allergic reaction may be a medical emergency if it happens in two or more of these systems — hives on the skin, for example, together with stomach pain.

The most common signs that a child who has been exposed to an allergen might have anaphylaxis are:

  • difficulty breathing
  • tightness in the throat or feeling like the throat or airways are closing
  • hoarseness or trouble speaking
  • wheezing
  • nasal stuffiness or coughing
  • nausea, abdominal pain, or vomiting
  • fast heartbeat or pulse
  • skin itching, tingling, redness, or swelling

Dealing With a Serious Reaction

Anaphylaxis requires immediate treatment. It can get worse very quickly. If your child has a known allergy and starts to have a reaction, call 911 or immediately go to the nearest emergency room. Be sure your child's caregivers and teachers also know about the allergy, too, so they can help your child, if necessary.

During anaphylaxis, allergic chemicals are released into the blood. These cause the types of symptoms mentioned above. Doctors usually want people with life-threatening allergies to carry a medication called epinephrine. Epinephrine works against those symptoms; for example, it decreases swelling and raises blood pressure.

Because epinephrine has to get into the bloodstream as fast as possible in an emergency, it needs to be given as an injection. This isn't as scary as it sounds, though — there's no big needle and plunger involved. Instead, doctors will prescribe an auto injector about the size of a large pen that's easy for parents — and older kids — to carry and use.

If your child is prescribed epinephrine, your doctor will show you how to use it. If your child starts to have difficulty breathing, tightness in the throat, feels faint, or has allergic symptoms in more than one of the body systems mentioned above, give the epinephrine right away.

Your doctor might also instruct you to give your child over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines, too — but they won't work alone. OTC antihistamines are never a replacement for epinephrine in life-threatening reactions.

If your child has had to use an epinephrine auto injector, go to a hospital emergency room immediately. Sometimes a person has a second wave of symptoms (called a biphasic reaction). So the hospital will observe your child for at least 4 hours to be sure he or she is OK and provide additional treatment, if needed.

Serious allergies can be alarming. But they're a lot easier to recognize and treat now than in the past, thanks to greater awareness and the availability of epinephrine.

Reviewed by: Hemant P. Sharma, MD
Date reviewed: January 2008

Related Sites

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network
Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network - Kids and Teens
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN)

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