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Home > Services > Allergy > Allergies We Treat > Anaphylaxis


Anaphylaxis is a severe, sometimes life-threatening, allergic reaction that affects multiple organs, including the heart and lungs. It's important to seek medical care right away if you have symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Substances that cause anaphylaxis are often called allergens or triggers. Common triggers include:

  • Foods and food additives, especially eggs, peanuts, seafood, cow's milk, soy, fish, shellfish, seeds and tree nuts
  • Insect stings or bites from bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants
  • Medicines, like antibiotics, seizure medications or muscle relaxants
  • Vaccines
  • Latex products, such as gloves, medical tubing and condoms
  • Blood transfusion
  • Some pain medicines, especially narcotics


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Allergic Reaction to Medication (Hives)

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Some triggers, like dyes used in X-ray procedures, can cause a reaction similar to anaphylaxis.

Are You at Risk?

Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors as they may increase your chance of developing anaphylaxis:

  • Previous allergic reaction to the substances listed above, even if it's a mild reaction
  • History of eczema, hay fever or asthma
  • Children who have certain conditions, such as spina bifida and urogenital defects, may be at increased risk for latex allergy (because of heavy exposure to latex during multiple surgeries)

Anaphylaxis Symptoms

Anaphylaxis can be mild, but it can also be very severe and cause death. The symptoms of anaphylaxis usually occur within minutes after exposure to an allergen, but they can occur hours later. These symptoms include:

  • Hives and itching
  • Warmth or redness of skin
  • Swelling, redness, stinging or burning, especially on the face, mouth, eyes or hands
  • Lightheadedness, pale/blue skin color, low pulse, dizziness
  • Obstruction of the nose, mouth and throat
  • Severe respiratory distress, like chest tightness, shortness of breath and wheezing
  • Nausea, vomiting, cramping, diarrhea or abdominal pain
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Convulsions
  • Low blood pressure
  • Shock
  • Feelings of anxiety

Diagnosis & Treatment

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical treatment.

Your doctor will suspect anaphylaxis if you have symptoms and have been exposed to a likely allergen. Skin and blood tests can confirm the diagnosis. Treatment includes:

  • Epinephrine (adrenaline) injection — makes blood vessels constrict, relaxes the airway, stops itching and hives and relieves gastrointestinal cramping
  • Other medicines — corticosteroids and/or antihistamines may be given after the epinephrine to decrease inflammation and improve breathing
  • Bronchodilators — to improve breathing
  • IV fluids — to maintain blood pressure
  • Oxygen
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) — may be necessary in severe cases when anaphylaxis leads to cardiovascular collapse. 
Severe anaphylaxis may require mechanical ventilation until swelling is brought under control.


Avoid substances that trigger anaphylaxis. In addition:

  • Allergy shots can decrease your risk and reduce the severity of the reactions to certain triggers.
  • Wear a medical alert bracelet that lists your allergies.
  • Tell your doctor or dentist about your allergies before taking any medicine. When possible, ask that medicines be taken as a pill. Allergic reactions can be more severe with injected medicines.
  • Your doctor may give you self-injectable epinephrine kit to keep with you at home, work, in the car and when you travel. Be sure family and friends know how to use the kit too. Get proper training from your doctor.
  • Remain in the doctor or dentist's office 30 minutes after you have an injection. Report any symptoms right away.


Call 434.243.3675.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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