What Is Anaphylaxis? Signs, Diagnosis, and Management


What is anaphylactic shock?

Anaphylaxis, sometimes referred to as anaphylactic shock, is a form of severe and potentially deadly allergic reaction. It is caused by the body’s immune system overreacting to a foreign substance, such as a particular food, environmental irritant, or medication, and affects the entire body.

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What Is an Allergic Reaction?

Allergic reactions can be best explained as an unnecessary arousal of the body's immune defenses. When an allergen, such as pollen or pet dander, enters the body, it triggers a defense response. The immune system releases chemicals such as histamine, which cause inflammation and other symptoms.

Are Allergic Reactions Dangerous? 

An allergic reaction can initiate all sorts of responses within the body. In most cases, they present themselves as mild to moderate allergy symptoms like sneezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose. In rarer situations, however, a person with allergies may develop a more severe and dangerous allergic reaction like anaphylaxis.

How Dangerous is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis can result in swollen hands and feet, nausea, and itchy skin all over. It also can constrict the airways, making it harder to breathe and in some cases blocking the ability altogether. Anaphylaxis is an extremely dangerous condition that can be life-threatening if not treated immediately.

What Causes an Anaphylactic Reaction?

The process behind anaphylaxis is similar to that of other allergic reactions - the body identifies what it believes to be a threat, releases histamines, and launches an all-out immune response. The only difference is that in the case of anaphylaxis, this occurs on a much more extensive scale.

How Long Does Anaphylaxis Take?

Someone with anaphylaxis will generally develop the symptom within minutes - or sometimes seconds - of exposure to an allergen. Their systems overreact and release a flood of chemicals that cause them to go into shock. Blood pressure drops, airways constrict, and the heart rate increases as the body struggles to cope with its overreaction.

Common Triggers

Common triggers for anaphylaxis include:

  • Certain foods
  • Insect stings
  • Medications

The condition can also develop upon exposure to allergens like pollen and pet dander. In all cases, immediate medical attention is required to prevent any further complications.

How Common Is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis affects up to 5% of the U.S. population across all ages. Because of its impact on the airways, the condition is known to be fatal. However, dire as this may seem, people can recover successfully from anaphylaxis when medical attention is sought out at the right time.

Signs and Symptoms of Anaphylaxis

While anaphylaxis affects the entire body, the way it does so differs. Certain areas like the skin react differently than the eyes and nose, culminating in a mass iteration of several severe symptoms.

Here are some of the most well-known responses involved in anaphylaxis and what each looks like:

Low Blood Pressure

Low blood pressure, medically referred to as hypotension, is the first telling sign of anaphylaxis. It indicates that the body has started to shut down in an attempt to ward off the allergen. This can lead to dizziness, lightheadedness, and even loss of consciousness.

Skin Rash

The skin is one of the earliest areas to react to an allergen and is often the most visible sign of anaphylaxis. Redness, itching, and a rash can all occur as the body attempts to reject the irritant. It may also present itself as facial flushing or a tightening sensation on the skin.


Anaphylaxis can also cause swelling of the skin, lips, and tongue. This usually appears as hives or welts and can be accompanied by a tingling sensation. In certain cases, the throat may swell up and block airways, making it harder to breathe.

Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are yet other symptoms linked to anaphylaxis. This occurs as the body releases certain chemicals that disrupt its normal processes and causes physical discomfort as a result.

Breathing Difficulties

Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing is a telltale sign of anaphylaxis and can occur for several reasons. The airways may constrict due to the swelling or the body may produce excess mucus, making it harder for oxygen to get through.

Confusion and Anxiety

With anaphylaxis, many people can also experience psychological and emotional changes such as confusion, anxiety, fear, and panic. This usually occurs as a response to the sudden onset of symptoms and can be exacerbated by improper treatment or lack thereof.

Clammy Skin

Clammy, cold skin is another symptom of anaphylaxis. This occurs as a result of the body's inability to regulate its temperature and can be accompanied by paleness and a drop in body temperature.

Abdominal Pain

Anaphylaxis patients often report feelings of pain and cramping due to the influx of chemicals released by the body. This can be accompanied by diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, making it even more difficult to diagnose correctly.

Collapsing or Fainting

The most severe symptom of anaphylaxis is collapse or fainting. It's usually a later-stage response and occurs when the body's resources have been completely depleted by the reaction. When someone experiences this symptom, they must receive medical attention immediately to prevent further complications.


Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention. The most common treatment for the condition is an injection of epinephrine, a hormone that acts quickly to relieve symptoms caused by anaphylaxis.

In cases of anaphylactic shock, a combination of treatments may be used to support the patient's vital signs until they are stable.

The sooner medical treatment is sought for anaphylaxis, the better. Prompt treatment can help prevent potentially life-threatening complications and ensure a successful recovery.


Preventing anaphylaxis ultimately comes down to avoidance. Knowing what triggers a reaction and avoiding contact with those substances is key to preventing an attack.

For some people, the trigger may be relatively easy to identify, such as an allergy to a certain food. For others, it may be more challenging to pinpoint the source. It is important to educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis to help identify the trigger and take the appropriate precautions.

It is also important to always carry an auto-injector of epinephrine in case of an emergency. This device is designed to inject the necessary dosage of epinephrine in the event of anaphylaxis and can be lifesaving.

What to Do If Someone Has Anaphylaxis?

Not everyone's experience with anaphylaxis is first-hand - you may encounter the reaction when someone you know or come across in public develops it. In these situations, the first step is to call 911.

Once emergency services are on their way, it's important to help the person remain calm and stationary. Have them lie down and elevate their legs (if possible) to increase circulation.

If the person carries an auto-injector, assist to ensure the proper dosage is administered. EpiPens, the most popular auto-injector, are designed for easy use and provide instructions with each device.

It is important to monitor the person closely, keeping track of their vital signs and breathing patterns while waiting for medical help to arrive. If symptoms worsen or the person loses consciousness, start CPR and follow the instructions from emergency services.

How Is Anaphylaxis Diagnosed?

Diagnosing anaphylaxis starts with a physical exam to determine the severity of the reaction and its potential causes. Your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history, including any existing allergies or pre-existing conditions to narrow down the scope of what's going on.

Testing for anaphylaxis may also include provocation tests, which involve exposing a patient to small amounts of potential allergens in a controlled environment. This helps to identify if the patient is indeed experiencing anaphylaxis and can also help pinpoint which allergen is causing the reaction.

Once anaphylaxis is properly diagnosed, your doctor can develop a comprehensive treatment plan to help manage the reaction and keep it from happening in the future.

When to See a Doctor for Anaphylaxis

It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you or someone around you experiences the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis. Prompt medical treatment is necessary to prevent potentially life-threatening complications and ensure a successful recovery.

If you've already experienced anaphylaxis and suspect that allergies may be the cause, it is also important to see a doctor. Allergy testing can help confirm your suspicions and identify which allergen(s) you need to avoid in the future. Your doctor can also guide you on taking preventive measures and managing your allergies in the long term.

Types of Allergy Testing

Allergy testing can be done in one of two ways: conventional skin prick tests and at-home kits.

Skin Prick Tests

The first option, skin prick testing, involves inserting a small amount of common allergens into your skin to watch how it reacts in real-time. This is done in a doctor's office and as the name suggests, is very uncomfortable.

At-Home Allergy Tests

The second option, at-home testing kits, offers a more accessible and convenient way to test for allergies. These kits are easy to use and provide results almost instantly, making it easier to identify what could be triggering your symptoms.

Wyndly's at-home testing kit can be shipped straight to your door and only requires a small finger prick. Simply take your blood sample, send it off, and wait for a comprehensive report outlining your individual allergy profile. This is a great option for those who don't have the time or resources to go through conventional testing or don’t want to be exposed to what they’re allergic to, resulting in itchy and uncomfortable hives.

Once you receive your results, your doctor can help you stay safe, develop an effective treatment plan and address any underlying health issues.

How to Treat Allergies

Allergies can be treated in many ways, from lifestyle changes to medications and immunotherapy. This section will detail each of those strategies to help you find the best solution for your individual needs.

Limiting Exposure

The best way to manage allergies is to limit your exposure to the allergens that trigger your reaction. This may be difficult depending on the allergen, but it is certainly possible. If you're sensitive to conventional irritants like pollen and dander, the following tips can help you avoid allergens and minimize your symptoms:

  • Look at the pollen count every day: Pollen counts fluctuate from day to day depending on the season. Stay aware of your local forecast and plan outdoor activities accordingly.
  • Wear a mask: In cases where you must go outside during high pollen days, wearing a mask can help reduce your exposure. N95s are considered the most effective at filtering out allergens.
  • Limit outdoor time to evening hours: Pollen is released during the day, so try to limit your outdoor activities to evenings when pollen levels tend to be lower.
  • Shower more frequently: After being outside for extended periods, take a shower to rinse off any allergens that may have stuck to your hair or clothes.
  • Wash clothes more frequently: Pollen can easily attach to clothing, so make sure to wash your clothes regularly with an allergen-reducing detergent.
  • Keep windows closed: Reduce the number of allergens circulating in your home by keeping windows closed when possible. It's also a good idea to run your A/C during allergy season.
  • Keep your home clean: Using a HEPA filter and regularly vacuuming carpets and furniture can help reduce the number of allergens present in your home.


Some cases of allergies are severe enough that lifestyle changes may not be enough to keep your symptoms under control. In these situations, medications can provide relief from the discomfort caused by allergies.

Over-the-counter Medications

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are generally the first line of treatment for allergies. They can be bought at your local drugstore and administered without any medical supervision. Below are some of the most common types of OTC medications used to manage allergy symptoms for short-term relief.

  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines work by blocking the receptors that cause allergic reactions. Popular brands like Benadryl and Claritin can help provide temporary relief from sneezing, itching, and swelling.
  • Nasal sprays: Some allergies manifest in the form of congestion, so over-the-counter nasal sprays can help clear your sinuses. Saline sprays are often the safest option for most people, but decongestants are a better choice for those who have chronic congestion.
  • Eye drops: Those with eye allergies may find relief from over-the-counter eye drops. These drops reduce itchiness, irritation, and redness by blocking histamine receptors in the eyes.

Prescription Medications

In more severe cases, a doctor might prescribe corticosteroids or other prescription medications to help manage symptoms. Corticosteroids lower inflammation and can be taken orally or applied topically. Immunotherapy is also an option, which is designed to reduce the body's allergic reaction for long-term relief.

Sublingual Immunotherapy

Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) is an alternative to traditional allergy shots. Instead of injections, it involves taking drops or tablets containing a small amount of the allergens you are allergic to under your tongue. Over time, this helps build up a tolerance to the allergens and can provide long-term relief from symptoms. SLIT is generally considered to be a safe and effective option for managing allergies, with minimal risk of side effects.

At Wyndly, we offer sublingual immunotherapy treatment plans personalized to your individual needs. Our team of allergy doctors and allergists will assess your needs and create a treatment plan to help reduce your allergy symptoms.

Take Our Allergy Assessment

At Wyndly, we believe that everyone deserves relief from their allergies. Our at-home testing and sublingual immunotherapy treatments provide long-term relief from allergies, so you can live your life to the fullest.

Take our quick online assessment today and find out how Wyndly can help you treat your allergies!

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