Anaphylaxis (Allergic Shock): What Anyone With a Food Allergy Needs to Know

The medical name for allergic shock is anaphylaxis (ana-filaxis) and it can be a deadly form of allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis used to be most commonly associated with bee stings but today, food allergies are a much more common cause of this serious reaction.

One of my patients came to me with a story that is all too common: she was having a salad, with multiple toppings, and suddenly experienced severe diarrhea. Most of us would associate diarrhea with a stomach or intestinal upset from spoiled food but many patients and doctors don’t realize that diarrhea or vomiting can be the initial sign of a severe food allergy reaction. My patient also described further alarming symptoms: a hot, flush feeling running through her body and blurry vision. These are also classic signs of anaphylaxis, as histamine and other chemicals begin to flood the body. She was stumbling in the street until a taxi cab picked her up and brought her to the door step of the hospital.

Because she came by taxi, emergency staff didn’t recognize the seriousness of her condition. She was observed for several hours until the allergic reaction finally subsided on its own. In many cases, patients with severe allergic reactions are given an injection of Benadryl, which is unfortunately not the appropriate first line treatment for anaphylaxis.

The patient had had this kind of reaction before, but a previous visit to an allergist hadn’t yielded any results. Currently, I am running tests to figure out if she is allergic to nuts, legumes, or any vegetables that could have been in her salad. The key thing I have emphasized to her is that this could occur again, and that she needs to have an EpiPen to self-treat if she is not near medical help. An EpiPen looks like a big pen, but it contains epinephrine (adrenalin) in an injectable form, which can reverse a severe allergic reaction within minutes. A patient that uses an EpiPen should dial 911 for medical attention and be properly evaluated. The great news is that studies have shown that early, appropriate use saves lives!

This holiday season there will be lots of parties and delicious tantalizing treats – if you have a food allergy, especially a severe one, please be sure to have an EpiPen and know how to properly use it. The Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared” can save your life.

Dr. Dean Mitchell
Mitchell Medical Group, NYC & Long Island

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