What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a very severe allergic reaction that if not treated promptly can be life threatening.

Anaphylaxis is always a medical emergency.

What is the difference between an allergic and an anaphylactic reaction?

In terms of what happens inside the body, allergic and anaphylactic reactions differ only in the degree of severity. The symptoms a person experiences may be quite similar, but will be much more severe in the case of anaphylaxis. For example, lip or tongue tingling may occur with an allergic reaction, while swelling, maybe severe enough to block the air passages, may be a feature of anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency.

What are the symptoms of anaphylaxis?

Anaphylactic symptoms can affect any part of the body; the airways, the cardiovascular system, the central nervous system, the skin or the gastrointestinal system. Symptoms differ from person to person; what is common is that the symptoms experienced are severe enough to possibly cause death. Telltale symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

• Difficult/noisy breathing
• Swelling of tongue
• Swelling/tightness in throat
• Difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice
• Wheeze or persistent cough
• Persistent dizziness or collapse
• Becoming pale and floppy (young children)

I have only ever had mild allergic reactions; do I need to worry about anaphylaxis?

Allergies should not be ignored, even if they have only ever been mild in nature. The severity of symptoms can change over time, so anyone who has an allergy can potentially experience anaphylaxis.

There’s no need to panic, but learn all you can about allergies and their treatment, and your allergy in particular. Speak to your doctor about the best way to manage your symptoms and steps you can take to be prepared if they ever worsen.

What can I do to reduce my risk of anaphylaxis?

If you have been diagnosed with a severe allergy by a medical professional you will need a management plan from your doctor. This plan should include:

  1. Referral to, and regular follow-up with, an allergy specialist.
  2. Identification of the substances that trigger your allergy.
  3. Education and information about how to avoid your triggers.
  4. A written ASCIA Action Plan for anaphylaxis.

Your doctor may also recommend that you carry an adrenaline auto-injector with you at all times in case of anaphylaxis.  

How does adrenaline help if I have an anaphylactic reaction?

Adrenaline is a naturally occurring hormone that works rapidly to reverse the effects of anaphylaxis and should be considered essential first aid treatment.  

You can purchase adrenaline auto-injectors from your pharmacy. Each auto-injector contains a single, premeasured dose of adrenaline, and has been designed to be given by a non-medical person, such as a friend, teacher, childcare worker, parent, passer-by or, if you are able to do so, you can administer it yourself.

My child has allergies; will he grow out of them?

They may do, but not always. Allergic reactions to cow’s milk, soy or egg in infants sometimes resolve by the time they are 5 or 6 years old. While nut or seafood allergies generally last a lifetime.

In addition, the severity of symptoms may change over time – but this can work in both directions, i.e. mild symptoms can become more severe or severe symptoms can lessen in intensity. Even if symptoms seem to disappear they can reappear later in life. 

If I expose myself or my child to very small amounts of a trigger, can I teach the body to not react?

No. This is something you should not attempt without professional medical advice as it can be very dangerous. Anyone with an allergy should do everything they can to completely avoid or at least minimise their exposure to their particular triggers.

I’ve heard that allergies are best diagnosed and managed using ‘natural’ methods

There are several alternative ‘tests’ for allergy such as cytotoxic food testing, Vega testing, kinesiology, iridology, pulse testing, Alcat testing and Rinkel’s Intradermal skin testing. These tests have not been scientifically assessed, can be expensive, attract no Medicare rebate and have no useful role in the assessment of allergy. Scientifically validated tests ordered by your GP or allergy specialist, together with a medical history and examination are the safest and most effective way to diagnose allergies. 
Medicare rebates apply to Australian residents only.

If you decide to use dietary supplements, or other complementary and alternative medicines to treat an allergy it is important to let your doctor know. Alternative medicines can interfere with prescribed medicines, leading to undesirable side effects. You should also be aware that alternative medicines have not been subjected to the rigorous study of effectiveness and side effects that conventional drugs undergo.

What can I do to help if someone is having an anaphylactic reaction?

There are 4 steps you should take immediately if you think someone is having an anaphylactic reaction.

  1. Lay the person down flat.
  2. Check if they are carrying an adrenaline auto-injector and if so, inject immediately into the outer mid thigh. Administer the injection even if you are not sure it is anaphylaxis. If you are not sure, it is much less dangerous to give adrenaline than not to give it.
  3. Phone 000 in Australia and 111 in New Zealand and ask for an ambulance. Be clear about where you are, the symptoms the person has, any treatment you have given and how they have responded to that treatment.
  4. Commence CPR if necessary.

In addition, when it is safe to do so contact a parent/guardian or other emergency contact and let them know what has happened.