Dr. Chantay Smartt, who sees patients for both primary care and medical emergencies, said it’s important to know the signs of a life-threatening allergic reaction.
If a patient experiences hives, wheezing and difficulty breathing after being exposed to allergens like insect bites, foods or medications, call 911 immediately.
Patients with severe allergies should always discuss their symptoms with their provider to learn about how to avoid triggers and be prepared in the event of an emergency.
Allergy symptoms can range from an annoying stuffy nose to a serious medical emergency.
As a physician who sees patients both in the clinic and emergency room, I know how important it is to recognize the difference and seek appropriate care.
A severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. It can be life-threatening, and it’s important to react quickly when it happens. Here’s what you need to know to get the right care for someone who is experiencing anaphylaxis.
What allergies are linked to anaphylaxis?
Technically, any allergen can cause a severe reaction, but anaphylaxis due to pollens that cause seasonal allergies is very rare. I tell patients to be aware of the most common triggers:
- Insect bites, especially bee and wasp stings
- Foods including peanuts or tree nuts, seafood, wheat, milk and eggs
- Medications such as penicillin, aspirin, ibuprofen and anesthesia
- Latex, including common items like latex gloves and adhesive tapes
Is there any way to prevent it?
Many people with severe allergies know they have them and try to avoid triggers: They read food labels and ask restaurant staff about ingredients, tell health care providers about reactions to medications, wear insect repellent and cover their skin outdoors, avoid latex products.
You should also alert family, friends, schools, employers, etc. about the situation, and consider wearing a bracelet, necklace or other item that identifies the allergy in case of an emergency.
If you’ve had anaphylaxis and don’t know the cause, see an allergist for testing.
How will I know if I’ve been exposed?
It isn’t always possible to avoid triggers, so it’s important to recognize symptoms of anaphylaxis. They usually start within minutes of exposure.
Hives, itching, wheezing and difficulty breathing are classic signs.
Many patients also experience low blood pressure, a weak and rapid pulse, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, and dizziness or fainting.
What should I do?
Act fast – don’t wait to see if the symptoms go away!
Call 911 immediately. If you have injectable epinephrine (an epi pen), use it as directed. Try to keep the patient calm. Have them lay flat with their feet elevated about 12 inches and cover them
with a blanket or jacket to prevent shock.
It’s important to note that treating anaphylaxis doesn’t end with epinephrine – even if it makes the patient feel much better!
The patient still needs emergency medical care. Their symptoms could come back even stronger, and they might need additional medications.
Any other advice?
Make sure you talk to your primary care provider about allergies.
We can often provide testing and prescribe medications to help with symptoms. If you need additional expertise, we can refer you to an allergist, who can provide treatment options like immunotherapy (allergy shots), medications, and anti-immunoglobulin E therapy.
About Dr. Smartt