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Signs and Symptoms of an Allergy Emergency

By

Cindy Kuzma

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Each year, severe allergic reactions send an estimated 30,000 people to the emergency room and cause 150 deaths. Swift action can make the difference between a minor incident and a hospitalization—or worse.

Knowing the warning signs of anaphylaxis—a severe, life-threatening allergic emergency—can help you act fast. If you or a loved one develops these signs, seek immediate medical attention. People with known food, medication, or insect allergies should carry epinephrine, a shot that can counter an anaphylactic reaction. But they should still receive treatment after getting the shot because symptoms can return.

Anaphylaxis can be frightening, but being prepared will help you feel empowered to prevent a dangerous allergic reaction. Do you know all the facts?

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Nov 6, 2015

2016 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

Listen to Your Body

Watch the following body parts and systems for these signs of an allergy emergency. And pay special attention to the ways children might describe their reactions.

Your skin. Check the color of your skin. Sometimes it flushes red, while in other cases you’ll turn pale. You may develop hives, large, red welts that look like mosquito bites. Or you might notice an itchy skin rash.

Children might say: “I feel like I have bugs in my ears or on my skin.”

Your mouth and face. Sensations of tingling or itching can strike inside your mouth. Your tongue, lips, or other parts of your face often swell visibly. As with hay fever, you might sneeze, feel congested, or have a runny nose. Your eyes may water, itch, swell, or turn red.

Children might say:

  • “Something is poking my tongue.”

  • “My mouth burns, itches, or feels funny.”

  • “My tongue feels full, heavy or hairy.”

  • “My lips feel tight.”

Your respiratory system. As your immune system overreacts to the allergen, you might cough, wheeze, and pant. Your vocal cords and throat may swell, making your voice hoarse and breathing and swallowing difficult.

Children might say:

  • “It feels like there’s something in my throat.”

  • “I think there’s a bump on the back of my tongue or in my throat.”

Your heart. At times, allergy emergencies cause your heart to beat faster or irregularly. In other cases, your pulse weakens and your blood pressure drops severely. You might feel chest pain, as if you’re having a heart attack.

Your digestive system. Sometimes, bacteria in food can cause gastrointestinal symptoms. This is food poisoning rather than allergies. But you should suspect an allergy emergency when vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, nausea, or abdominal pain occur along with other symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Your neurologic system. Light-headedness, dizziness, confusion, or headaches are common consequences of severe allergic reactions. Without treatment, you may have seizures or convulsions, or pass out. Many people report a feeling of impending doom.

Often, these signs appear immediately after exposure to the allergen. But in other cases the reaction may be delayed by a half-hour or more. Sometimes the signs even improve and then come back. If you suspect an allergy emergency—even if you’re not sure—seek emergency medical help.

Key Takeaways

  • Each year, anaphylaxis, or a severe allergic reaction, sends an estimated 30,000 people to the emergency room. Knowing the warning signs can help you act fast.

  • Anaphylaxis symptoms might appear in your skin; mouth; heart; or respiratory, digestive, or neurological system.

  • Often, these signs appear immediately after exposure to the allergen, but they may be delayed. Sometimes the signs even improve and then come back.

  • If you suspect an allergy emergency, seek emergency medical help.
Was this helpful? (28)
Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 5, 2016

© 2016 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Lieberman PL. Recognition and First-Line Treatment of Anaphylaxis. American Journal of Medicine. January 2014;127(1 Suppl):S6-S11.;
  2. What Is Anaphylaxis? Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.aafa.org/print.cfm?id=9&sub=20&cont=281);
  3. Food Allergies in Schools, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/foodallergies/);
  4. Food Allergies: What You Need to Know, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm079311.htm);
  5. Food Allergies: Reducing the Risks, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm089307.htm);
  6. Food Allergy Reactions, American Academy of Pediatrics, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/Food-Allergy-Reactio...;
  7. Diagnosing Food Allergies in Children, American Academy of Pediatrics, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/nutrition/Pages/Diagnosing-Food-Aller...;
  8.  Allergy Causes in Children: What Parents Can Do, American Academy of Pediatrics, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/allergies-asthma/Pages/Allergy-Cause...;
  9. Anaphylaxis, American Academy of Pediatrics, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/injuries-emergencies/Pages/Anaphylaxis.aspx);
  10. Food Allergies in Children, American Academy of Pediatrics, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Food-Allergies-in-Children.asp...;
  11. Managing Food Allergies, American Academy of Pediatrics, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Managing-Food-Allergies.aspx);
  12. Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the United States, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/foodallergy/clinical/documents/faguidelinespatient.pdf);
  13. Food Allergy: An Overview, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Accessed January 18, 2014 (http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/foodallergy/documents/foodallergy.pdf);

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