Updated 13 August 2015

Life-threatening allergy attacks

If someone you love has serious allergies, are you prepared? Can you cope with the anxiety that anaphylaxis brings about?


If the mere thought of a peanut butter sandwich causes you to break out into a cold sweat, you probably suffer from, or are related to someone with anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis awareness should be as common as CPR or the Heimlich manoeuvre, but it’s not.

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur within seconds or minutes of exposure to certain allergens. The flood of chemicals released by your immune system during anaphylaxis can cause you to go into shock: your blood pressure drops suddenly and your airways narrow, blocking normal breathing.

The main causes known to trigger anaphylactic attacks are peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, wasp and bee stings, latex, and drugs such as penicillin. Most allergic reactions affect only one part of your body such as your skin or lungs. But anaphylaxis affects multiple parts of your body at once, affecting people of all ages. Without treatment this could be deadly.

If someone you love has serious allergies, are you prepared? Can you cope with the anxiety that anaphylaxis brings about?

Having a potentially life-threatening reaction is frightening, whether it happens to you, others close to you, or to your child. But, remember, you are not powerless. An easy ABC allergy emergency action plan can save your life or that of a loved one.

Act Fast

Early symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction may be mild: a runny nose, a skin rash or a “strange feeling” but these can quickly morph into troubling ones including breathing difficulties, hives, throat tightness, nausea and vomiting. Know the signs!

Be Prepared

Early treatment with epinephrine can be a lifesaver. Always carry epinephrine with you; there is no exception to this rule! It is given as a “shot” and is available as a self- injector, also known as an auto-injector. This is highly effective, but must be administered promptly during anaphylaxis. Delays can result in death. Two injectors may be necessary to control anaphylactic symptoms.

Call for back-up

A person who was treated with epinephrine should always be taken to the nearest emergency facility for further evaluation and treatment.

Being diagnosed with anaphylaxis could bring about a significant amount of anxiety, especially for the parent of an anaphylactic child. Stress levels are usually at their peak in the months following the diagnosis, but can significantly increase when there is a change in lifestyle, such as the start of school or a move. Sometimes the stress of worrying about the allergy causes more stress than the allergen itself, which can usually successfully be avoided.

The following tips may help to reduce anxiety:

- Get a diagnosis form a certified allergist; find out exactly which allergens should be avoided.

- Learn how to correctly read ingredient labels. Read them every time you buy a product, in case the manufacturing process has changed. When eating out, ask about the ingredients, and ask about the food preparation – even a small amount of the food that you are allergic to can cause a serious reaction. Focus on what you can have, instead of what you cannot have. Keep a supply of “safe” snacks.

- Put the allergy in perspective. The number of allergy deaths is small (especially for food allergies). Some reactions are fatal but prompt emergency treatment saves lives. Most deaths are preventable.

- If you’re allergic to stinging insects, exercise caution when they’re nearby. Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants and don’t wear sandals or walk barefoot in the grass. Avoid bright colours and don’t wear perfumes or colognes. Move away slowly and avoid slapping at the insect.

- Drug allergies can be fatal. Be sure to tell your doctor about allergies you’ve experienced in the past.

- Carry emergency medicine always and everywhere. Wear a Medic Alert bracelet stating your allergens.

- If your child suffers from anaphylaxis, schedule meetings with teachers and caregivers before the school year begins. Inform friends and family about the allergy. Explain the implications. Make copies of the letter from your physician for schools and caregivers. Give it to family as well. A positive attitude is important because the allergic child will adopt and reflect the attitude of the parents.

- A child needs to take responsibility for their own safety as soon as possible. It is important for his social and emotional wellbeing that he is not over protected.

- Learn to recognise, accept and control your anxiety. Join a support group or see a professional if necessary.

Avoiding your allergens is the best way to prevent anaphylaxis. Make contact with your allergist on a regular basis to make sure that you are doing all that you can for your health.