Anaphylaxis – What is it?

I wanted to give you all some information on anaphylaxis as this is the most fatal of all allergic reactions. Bear with me, it’s a long post but it’s full of all of the information you need to know about Anaphylaxis!

Thankfully we haven’t experienced anaphylaxis in our household but we are prepared for that event should it happen one day. It’s a scary thought but the more you know the more you can prevent it from occurring so have a read below…

The leading cause of anaphylaxis in the USA is food allergies. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction, rapid in onset and sometimes lethal. During my research I found out that anaphylaxis accounts for at least 30,000 emergency room visits each year and it is responsible for almost two hundred deaths each year in America alone. Approximately 4% Americans, or 12 million people, suffer from food allergies. Of this 12 million, just over half are adults who are allergic to seafood and another three million people who are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. The prevalence of food allergies in the USA has been rising over the last decade and shows no signs of slowing down. Scary isn’t it?!

The data for Australian anaphylaxis fatalities is relatively new and is nowhere near that of America’s, with only 323 fatalities due to anaphylaxis reported between 1997 and 2013. Of those 323 they were a mix of food, medicine and bites/sting allergies. Although data in Australia is limited we do know that during the period from 1997 to 2013 cases of fatal anaphylaxis rose by 10% each year.

Food allergies develop when the body thinks an ingredient within the food (often a protein) is harmful. The body can respond by generating specific disease-fighting antibodies known as immunoglobulin E (or IgE for short). If and when the food is ever eaten again, the body can release large amounts of this IgE antibody and other chemicals like histamine, which is in an effort to expel this protein “invader”. These powerful chemicals unfortunately also affect and cause damage to the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin and even the cardiovascular system, which results in the onset of anaphylaxis.

Allergies in food products are common in peanuts, fish, eggs, cow’s milk, tree nuts, cashews, walnuts, wheat and eggs. Some of the most severe allergic reactions occur due to the consumption peanuts. Peanuts are one of the main ingredients in fast energy foods like muesli or protein bars. Traces of peanuts and even peanut butter is often used in lollies, cookies, sweets, pastries and gravies. Peanut butter is also widely used in Chinese restaurants to hold together edges of egg rolls. In Chinese and similar restaurants, the same chopping board and wok is often used to prepare and cook a variety of meals. Even if peanuts are not present in one meal, traces can be left from previous meals cooked that did contain peanuts.

Besides food, anaphylaxis occurs due to hymenoptera stings from bees, wasps and ants and also some medications. Uncommon triggers include latex, tick bites, blood transfusions, and airborne allergens like animals hair and pollen. Many allergic reactions due to household pets or birch pollens limit themselves to itching, sneezing and watery eyes. More often than not these times of allergic reactions are rarely serious.

Anaphylactic reactions vary amongst suffers but include things like hives, swelling of the mouth area including lips, tongue and throat. Nausea, wheezing and  difficulty breathing, dizziness, diarrhoea, confusion, drop in blood pressure, becoming unconscious and death are all possible reactions too. These reactions general occur within minutes of a person coming into contact the specific allergic trigger.

Many suffers of anaphylaxis carry epinephrine, known as Epi or Ana pens on them so if they come into contact with an allergic trigger they can be injected with epinephrine to avoid the reaction from becoming too serious or even fatal. Immediate action is required when coming into contact with an allergic trigger as it is difficult to predict whether the anaphylaxis episode will be mild, life-threatening, or fatal. Close follow up is also recommended because anaphylaxis can occur repeatedly.

Severe food allergies differ to food intolerances. A food intolerance is when a person has an adverse reaction to a particular food due because of their body’s inability to properly break down and digest the food. Food intolerance could bring on a headache, nausea, abdominal cramping, diarrhoea or bloating, whereas an allergy is an immune system response.

People with a history of allergies to asthma, eczema and food are the most at risk to anaphylactic reactions. An anaphylactic reaction can initially start off as an irritation or itching sensation, or a sudden warm feeling, laboured breathing, inflammation of the mouth, hot flashes, hives, diarrhoea and loss of consciousness, fainting, gastric sensitivities and irritations and low blood pressure. Symptoms can even reduce or disappear for a few hours and then come back, this is called a biphasic reaction.

To prevent or avoid anaphylactic reactions diet modifications are required as well as proper scrutiny of food labels. When dining out very specific instructions need to be given to the restaurant to ensure no cross contamination occurs in your meal.

Food allergies can affect any child or adult of any race and ethnicity equally, food allergies do not prejudice. What’s more is that it can develop at any age. Food allergies sometimes run in families, which suggests that the condition can be hereditary. If yourself or someone you know is showing signs of a food allergy seek medical help straight away. Don’t wait until a severe reaction happens, prevent it.


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