What You Need to Know About Deadly Allergic Reactions

When your own body works against you.

Medically reviewed in June 2022

Maybe you’ve heard about Hostess recalling some of its products due to a peanut contamination or maybe your kids’ school has gone nut-free. It’s just a peanut—what’s the big deal? For people with severe peanut allergies, it’s a huge deal. If you have a severe allergy, sometimes your body’s reaction can even be life threatening. 

More than 50 million people in the US have allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 200,000 Americans will at some point have anaphylaxis, a body-wide allergic reaction that can be life threatening and even fatal

“Anaphylaxis is an immune-mediated reaction where the body responds systemically in life threatening ways,” says Stephen Soldo, MD, an emergency physician with Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, California. In other words, anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction that can kill. 

Invaders and Antibodies 
When you have an allergic reaction, your body is trying to protect you. “Allergic reactions are meant to protect the body from foreign substances,” says Dr. Soldo. “But the trouble is, sometimes the reaction is so severe that it hurts the host.” 

An allergen is something that provokes a strong immune system reaction in some people but not others. Common allergens include peanuts, shellfish, insect venom and antibiotics. The immune system produces antibodies that attack these allergens and cause an allergic reaction. Each type of antibody attacks a different type of allergen. 

A Full-Body Reaction 
There’s a wide range of allergic reactions, but anaphylaxis is the most serious type. Allergic reactions are generally minor the first time you’re exposed to an allergen.  However, as the immune system produces more and more antibodies to prepare for the next encounter with the allergen, reactions and be come much more severe, says Soldo. 

An anaphylactic reaction is body-wide. Hives, itching or a rash all over your body are signs of anaphylaxis. Nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, low blood pressure and swelling are other signs of a serious allergic reaction. Anaphylactic reactions start quickly—usually within minutes of coming into contact with an allergen. 

What to Do 
The cornerstone of treatment is epinephrine, says Soldo, available as an auto-injector. Steroids and antihistamines may also help, but epinephrine “will frequently be the only treatment you need and will buy you time,” Soldo says. You’ll still need to go to the hospital if the epinephrine stops the allergic reaction, since reactions can recur in four to eight hours or even later. 

In the past there has been controversy over the price of the name-brand auto-injector, which can cost more than $600 for a two-pack. In January 2017 a large drug store chain announced that it would sell a generic version for $109.99, or more than 80 percent less expensive than the name-brand version. 

If you suspect someone near you is having an anaphylactic reaction, look for those full-body symptoms, says Soldo. “With anaphylaxis it’s a more generalized reaction with many different body symptoms, “ he says. “You have to look for those general symptoms.” Anaphylaxis is an emergency. Call 911 right away if you notice or experience any symptoms.

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