Anaphylaxis

Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2003.

What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe and rapidly developing systemic hypersensitivity reaction that is associated with the skin rash, urticaria.

Full-blown anaphylaxis includes urticaria (hives) and/or angioedema (tissue swelling) with hypotension (low blood pressure) and bronchospasm (asthma).

How does anaphylaxis arise?

The World Allergy Organization has categorised anaphylaxis into 3 groups.

  1. Interaction of an allergen (see causes below) with specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) or non-IgE antibodies bound to mast cells in the skin and lungs and basophils in the blood. The mast cell releases chemicals that act on blood vessels to produce a wide range of clinical effects throughout the body.
  2. Anaphylactoid reactions are clinically similar but they are non-immunologically mediated.
  3. Idiopathic anaphylaxis, i.e. cause unknown

Severity of reactions from anaphylaxis can vary from mild symptoms to sudden death. In any case, medical attention should be sought immediately and appropriate treatment given.

What causes anaphylaxis?

A wide variety of substances can cause anaphylaxis or anaphylactoid reactions. Approximately one third of all cases have no known cause (idiopathic).

Food allergy

Drugs

Insect stings

Uncommon causes

What are the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis?

Food-induced anaphylaxis often produces skin reactions and respiratory symptoms whilst drug- or venom-induced anaphylaxis more often produces shock. Symptoms usually occur within 5–60 minutes of contact with the allergen, but sometimes occur after several hours, or even 3–4 days later. Fast onset and rapid progression of symptoms usually indicates severe, life-threatening anaphylaxis. One or more organ systems may be involved. Typical features are described below.

Skin

Respiratory

Heart

Gastrointestinal

Systemic

Diagnosis of anaphylaxis

Because acute anaphylaxis can be immediately life threatening, diagnosis must be made quickly and efficiently, often while administering initial medication. Diagnosis is essentially made on the basis of:

What is the treatment of anaphylaxis?

Acute anaphylaxis must be treated as a medical emergency with stabilisation of airway, breathing and circulation. Intramuscular adrenaline (epinephrine) must be given immediately to patients with signs of shock, airway swelling, or definite difficulty in breathing. This is followed by treatment with an antihistamine, corticosteroid and perhaps other drugs.

Adrenaline may not be necessary for skin manifestations of anaphylaxis. Treatment with antihistamines may be all that is required.

Prevention is the best medicine. All those at risk of anaphylaxis should wear a Medic Alert/emergency bracelet with full details of allergies and contact details of their doctor. In some cases, a patient or caregiver should always carry an emergency kit containing self-injectable adrenaline and antihistamine tablets.

Self-injectable adrenaline

Adrenaline is available as an auto-injector, EpiPen® (0.3 mg) and EpiPen® Jr (0.15 mg). They are prescribed for emergency use in people with a history of an anaphylactic reaction. If they are used, the patient should also obtain immediate medical care. The adrenaline may cause a fast or irregular heart beat, nausea and breathing difficulties.

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