Health conditions

Anaphylaxis

What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction and is potentially life threatening. 

It should be treated as a medical emergency, requiring immediate treatment.

What are allergies?

An allergy occurs when your immune system reacts to substances (allergens) in the environment that are harmless for most people, such as food proteins, pollen, dust mites, insect stings and bites.

Allergic reactions can range from being mild to severe (anaphylaxis).

Some people wear a medical warning bracelet to identify their severe allergies.

Causes of anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is most commonly caused by food allergies.

Any food can cause an allergic reaction, however the following nine foods cause 90 per cent of allergic reactions in Australia:

  • peanuts
  • tree nuts (for example hazelnuts, cashews and almonds)
  • eggs
  • cow's milk
  • wheat
  • soybean
  • fish
  • shellfish
  • sesame. 

Other causes of anaphylaxis include:

  • medications
  • anaesthesia
  • latex (products made from latex include dummies for babies, rubber bands, balloons, shoe soles, condoms, gloves, catheters and stethoscopes)
  • insect bites and stings, particularly bee stings. 

People who are at increased risk of anaphylaxis

Having unstable asthma increases the risk of death from anaphylaxis, particularly in those with food allergies. 

Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis

Mild to moderate allergic reaction

  • swelling of the lips, face, eyes
  • hives or welts
  • tingling mouth
  • abdominal pain or vomiting. 

Severe allergic reaction

Watch for any one of the following symptoms:

  • difficulty or noisy breathing
  • swelling of tongue
  • swelling or tightness in throat
  • difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice
  • wheeze or persistent cough
  • persistent dizziness or collapse
  • young children may appear pale and floppy.

Treatment of anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis should be treated as a medical emergency, requiring immediate treatment with adrenaline.

What is an adrenaline auto-injector?

The most effective first aid treatment for anaphylaxis is adrenaline given using an adrenaline auto-injector (such as an EpiPen®) into the outer mid-thigh muscle.

Adrenaline auto-injectors are designed to be used by non-medical people so that anyone can use them in an emergency. 

How to treat anaphylaxis using an adrenaline auto-injector

  • Lay the person flat and do not allow them to stand or walk.
  • If breathing is difficult, allow the person to sit. If they are unconscious or vomiting, place them on their side in the recovery position.
  • Without delay, administer an adrenaline auto injector (EpiPen®) into the patient’s outer mid-thigh.Instructions for how to administer EpiPen. Step 1 pull off blue safety release. Step 2 push orange end hard into outer thigh so it clicks and hold for 10 seconds. After administering EpiPen, call 000
  • If in doubt, give adrenaline auto-injector.
  • Call an ambulance – dial 000.
  • If there is no response after five minutes and another adrenaline auto injector is available, a further dose may be given.
  • If after giving adrenaline, there are no signs of life, commence CPR.
  • If you are unsure whether the person is experiencing asthma or anaphylaxis, give adrenaline, then give asthma medication.
  • Medical observation for at least four hours after the last dose of adrenaline is recommended after anaphylaxis. If a person is treated with an adrenaline auto-injector, an ambulance must be called immediately to take the person to a hospital.

If left untreated

Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction and is potentially life threatening.

It should be treated as a medical emergency, requiring immediate treatment with adrenaline.

If you know or care for someone at risk of anaphylaxis, it is important to know their allergic triggers and to have a plan to minimise their risk of exposure to known allergens.  This includes raising the awareness of causes of anaphylaxis and treatment plans with carers, friends and the community. 

Where to get help

  • If you have severe symptoms, always dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance in a medical emergency
  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Remember

  • Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction.
  • It is potentially life threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency, requiring immediate treatment with adrenaline.
  • The most effective first aid treatment for anaphylaxis is adrenaline, administered with an adrenaline auto injector.

Acknowledgements

PMH


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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