What is Anaphylaxis and how is it treated?

Anaphylaxis is an extremely dangerous allergic reaction. The name ‘anaphylaxis’ means ‘without protection’ and indeed, the condition is caused by a massive over-reaction of the body’s protection (immune) system. Severe anaphylactic reactions are very rare.

The most common reactions are to drugs such as penicillin. Other common allergies are to things such as insect stings, peanuts, seafood etc. The main chemical that the immune cells release if they detect a ‘foreign protein’ is histamine. Histamine has several effects on the body when it is released in massive quantities:

  • It weakens the strength of the heart’s contractions. 
  • It constricts the bronchioles in the lungs.
  • It makes blood capillary walls ‘leaky’, causing severe swelling and shock 
  • It weakens the strength of the heart’s contractions. 
  • It makes the skin itchy & a rash develops.

Signs and Symptoms of Anaphylaxis

The allergic reaction can happen in seconds, so fast recognition is essential:

  • Sudden swelling of the face, tongue, lips, neck and eyes.
  • Hoarse voice, ‘lump in the throat’, developing into loud pitched noisy breathing (which may stop altogether).
  • Difficult, wheezy breathing, tight chest (the patient may have the equivalent of on asthma attack as well as a swollen airway).
  • Rapid weak pulse.
  • Nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Red, blotchy skin eruption.
  • Anxiety – a feeling of ‘impending doom’

Treatment of Anaphylaxis

Call for emergency medical help immediately. Do not delay in calling for help. 

Lay the casualty in a comfortable position:

  • If the casualty has Airway or Breathing problems they may prefer to sit up as this will make breathing easier • If the casualty feels
  • If the casualty feels faint, do not sit them up. Lay them down immediately. Raise the legs if they still feel faint.

The casualty may carry an auto-injector of adrenaline (epinephrine). This can save the casualty’s life if it’s given promptly. The patient should be able to inject this on their own but, if necessary, assist them to use it. If the casualty becomes unconscious – check Airway and Breathing (primary survey) and resuscitate as necessary. The dose of adrenaline (epinephrine) can be repeated at 5-minute intervals if there is no improvement or symptoms return. 

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