An anaphylactic attack or anaphylaxis is a severe type of allergic reaction. In the process of fighting a foreign agent, the body produces a large number of chemicals that cause harm to the body itself. About one fourth of the anaphylactic attacks seen do not have any specific cause. Certain medicines (e.g. Penicillin), an insect bite (e.g. bee sting), certain foods (e.g. peanuts) or certain products (e.g. Latex rubber) are some of the common trigger factors. Tick bite is known to aggravate red meat allergy and cause delayed anaphylaxis. For people who’re allergic to latex, condoms (especially when used during oral sex) could even lead to anaphylaxis.
It’s a very rare condition, the lifetime risk being roughly 1%. That is approximately 1 in 2000 people/year. Most people might not experience it in their lifetime at all. But its incidence is increasing, especially to food substances.
The culprit may be –
- Certain medicines (eg. Penicillin),
- An insect bite (eg. bee sting),
- Certain foods (eg. peanuts)
- Other products (eg. Latex rubber).
Although these are the common causes, there is scientific data that says that about one fourth of the anaphylactic attacks seen don't have any specific cause.
The symptoms may vary from mild to severe ones. The person may have –
- Skin swelling and rash
- Flushing and itching
- Swelling of face or tongue and running nose
- Hoarseness of voice and chest tightness
- Breathlessness and fast heart beats
- Severe anxiety or feeling of ‘impending doom’
- Pain in abdomen and loose motions
- Light headedness and giddiness or unconsciousness.
- The swelling of the tongue combined with unconsciousness may lead to fatal respiratory conditions.
The affected person should be removed from the environment or moved away from the substance that has caused anaphylaxis. If the person has had a previous episode of anaphylaxis and has epinephrine (adrenaline) injection with them, then it can be given in the muscle in mid-thigh area. If one does not have access to this medication, emergency medical care should be sought.
Until emergency medical aid arrives, the patient should be made to lie down with his/her legs elevated (raised above the level of their chest). Calm him/her down. This will help reduce the rate of their breathing, helping them cope better with the situation. If the patient is asthmatic and has an inhaler, it can be used to reduce his/her breathlessness.
Lastly if the person doesn’t have a pulse or stops breathing, perform CPR (Cardiopulmonary resuscitation) , till the time help arrives. (Read: No stings attached! Home remedies for insect bites)
An anaphylactic attack is a medical emergency. Hence the patient must visit a doctor immediately, since a severe reaction can lead to death. The doctor will then be able to immediately administer an adrenaline injection and give the patient anti-allergic medications (anti-histaminics/steroids), nebulisation, oxygen or intravenous fluids if required.
More importantly, after recovery, the person must take care not to get re-exposed to the causative allergen. As a precaution a patient with a severe allergy should carry an identity card or bracelet, that mentions his/her allergy and susceptibility to anaphylaxisis .
A known patient of anaphylaxis should also carry anti-allergic medicine (anti-histaminics) and adrenaline injection for self administration, in the case of an emergency.