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You’re feeling a little off after having something to eat. You notice some swelling or tingling in your lips. A few minutes later you start to feel itchy and see a rash spreading on your skin. Suddenly your pulse feels like it is racing, and a tightness begins in your chest that makes it hard to breathe.

You may be experiencing a severe life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This reaction occurs when the immune system overreacts to a trigger like a peanut or a bee sting. 

Anyone who experiences any symptoms of anaphylaxis needs medical attention right away. If you are under the care of a physician for your allergy, make sure to follow their action plan. This may include taking prescribed medications such as an epinephrine auto-injector and then immediately going to see a provider. 

For immediate diagnosis and treatment, walk right into your neighborhood CityMD. Patients will then be transferred to the hospital for further care. 

"We are equipped and trained to stabilize any emergent issues like sudden anaphylaxis that may require immediate treatment with a medication called epinephrine," explains Alissa McInerney, MD, a pediatric and adult allergist with Summit Health in New York City.

What is anaphylaxis? 

Anaphylaxis is an acute and potentially fatal allergic reaction that occurs in about 1 in 50 Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Dr. McInerney says reactions may start off mild with symptoms similar to seasonal allergies. But they can rapidly progress affecting various systems in the body including the skin, throat, stomach, and heart. 

“Many people think anaphylaxis is simply having your throat close up," she says. “That’s a common misconception. If you see severe reactions happening or multiple different symptoms — such as hives and vomiting or swelling and trouble breathing — that's anaphylaxis." 

Common signs of anaphylaxis include: 

  • Hives, rash, itchy, and/or red skin
  • Tingling and swelling of the lips and/or mouth
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Shortness of breath and/or wheezing
  • Cramps, stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, and/or vomiting
  • Rapid pulse
  • A drop in blood pressure
  • Dizziness, faintness, and/or loss of consciousness

Triggers of anaphylaxis

There are many allergens that can trigger a severe allergic response, including:

  • Foods –most commonly peanut, tree nut, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, sesame
  • Medicines – certain antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin
  • Insect stings – particularly wasp and bee stings
  • General anesthesia
  • Contrast agents – dyes used in some imaging tests like MRIs or CT scans to make certain areas of the body easier to see
  • Latex – a type of rubber found in some gloves and condoms 

Epinephrine auto-injector treatment

If you have a history of anaphylaxis, you probably carry at least one epinephrine auto-injector, also known as an EpiPen®, with you at all times.  It is often advised to carry two pens in the event that the first one is not enough to alleviate the symptoms of anaphylaxis. 

An epinephrine auto-injector is easy to use. You or a family member can administer an epinephrine auto-injector into your thigh without ever seeing a needle. 

Once administered, it automatically injects the hormone epinephrine/adrenaline into the body to counteract the effects of the allergic reaction. The drug works to relax the airways, helping the person breathe easier. It also reverses the dangerous decrease in blood pressure that can happen during an anaphylactic episode. 

Your Summit Health allergy specialist can prescribe the EpiPen or similar injection pen to treat your individual medical needs. 

Epinephrine auto-injectors save lives 

Dr. McInerney believes epinephrine auto-injectors are not used enough. People also tend to wait too long to give the injection. “Whether it's because of the expense or the uncertainty, allergy sufferers often hesitate to inject themselves and wind up in the emergency room instead,” she adds.

During an anaphylactic episode, it is critical that the epinephrine auto-injectors be administered promptly. Her rule of thumb: If you have symptoms and are questioning whether you should use the EpiPen, the answer is yes.

“The main downside is that epinephrine auto-injectors will cause an increase in heart rate and can make people feel anxious as a side effect," Dr. McInerney continues. “But if you have severe reactions to anything, you really need to have an epinephrine auto-injector and discuss with your allergist how and when to use it.”

If you think you may have an allergy, make an appointment with an allergist at Summit Health. Our team can help identify what you are allergic to and develop a treatment plan to help control your symptoms and keep you safe. If you think you are having a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis walk right into the closest CityMD for immediate evaluation and treatment.