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Anaphylaxis: Awareness
Health Issue Category
Date of Issue
Revision Date:
February, 2006
Related Policies, Administrative Procedures and Forms:


Anaphylaxis – sometimes called “allergic shock” or “generalized allergic reaction” – is a term that describes acute, life threatening, severe allergic reaction to a food, drug or other substance (i.e. bee venom) that if untreated, can lead rapidly to death. The most common allergies are peanut, nut, milk, egg, soya, fish, shellfish, sesame seeds, mustard seeds,latex, medications, exercise and idiopathic allergies (from other unknown sources) are possible too. Anaphylaxis occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to harmless substances as though they were harmful invaders. It is an explosive overreaction of the body’s defense system to a foreign matter. However, instead of developing the familiar runny nose or rash, sufferers of anaphylaxis respond with an extreme body reaction, characterized by swelling, severe breathing trouble, sometimes cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, and ultimately circulatory collapse. The reaction may begin with itching, hives, swelling of the lips, eyes or face, possibly including vomiting and diarrhea; within moments, the throat may begin to close, choking off breathing, followed by circulatory collapse, unconsciousness and death. Therefore, there is a need for prompt administration of epinephrine at the onset of the reaction.

What An Anaphylactic Reaction Looks Like

An anaphylactic reaction can begin within seconds of exposure or after several hours. Any combination of the following symptoms may signal the onset of a reaction:

  • Intense sense of impending doom
  • Overwhelming panic
  • Hives, swelling, blotchy redness
  • Itching of eyes, lips and/or tongue (or any part of the body)
  • Swelling (of any body parts, especially eyes, lips, face, tongue, hands)
  • Change of voice
  • Red watery eyes
  • Runny nose or nasal stuffiness
  • Stomach ache or cramps
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Throat tightness or closing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Vomiting or nausea, diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Change of colour, paleness, sweatiness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Sudden unsteadiness, fainting, loss of consciousness
  • Irregular or laboured breathing or breathing stops

*Many of these symptoms can result from conditions other than anaphylaxis, but in a person at risk of anaphylaxis, they should not be ignored.

Symptoms may vary with each individual, depending upon the specific food and quantity ingested, and may be only one or any combination of the symptoms above. Time from onset of first symptoms to death can be in as little as a few minutes, if the reaction is not treated immediately. Even when symptoms have subsided after initial treatment, they can return within eight to forty-eight hours after the first exposure.

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