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Serious Allergic Reactions (Anaphylaxis)

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What Is Anaphylaxis?

Kids with severe allergies can be at risk for a sudden, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis can be scary — a child may feel like his or her throat is closing or might faint, for example. But the good news is that when treated quickly, it can be managed.

Anaphylaxis isn't common, but if your child has allergies (especially to insect stings, foods, or certain medicines), it's important to know about it and be prepared.

What Are the Signs of Anaphylaxis?

As with other allergies, anaphylaxis can trigger symptoms in any of these four body systems:

  1. skin
  2. digestive system
  3. respiratory system
  4. cardiovascular system

An allergic reaction might be a medical emergency if it happens in two or more of these systems — for example, hives on the skin with stomach pain.

The most common signs that someone might have anaphylaxis after exposure to an allergen are:

  • trouble breathing
  • throat tightness or feeling like the throat or airways are closing
  • hoarseness or trouble speaking
  • wheezing
  • nasal stuffiness or coughing
  • nausea, abdominal pain, or vomiting
  • fast heartbeat or pulse
  • skin itching, tingling, redness, or swelling

How Is Anaphylaxis Treated?

Anaphylaxis requires immediate treatment. It can get worse very quickly. This is why doctors usually want people with life-threatening allergies to carry a medication called epinephrine. Epinephrine enters the bloodstream and works quickly against serious allergy symptoms; for example, it decreases swelling and raises blood pressure.

Epinephrine is given as an injection. Doctors will prescribe an auto injector about the size of a large pen that's easy for parents — and older kids — to carry and use. If your child is prescribed epinephrine, your doctor will show you how to use it.

Your doctor also might instruct you to give your child over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines, too — but they won't work alone. OTC antihistamines are never a replacement for epinephrine in life-threatening reactions.

If Your Child Has a Serious Reaction

If your child shows signs of a serious allergic reaction:

Step 1: Give the epinephrine auto-injector right away. Seconds count during an episode of anaphylaxis. If you are alone with your child, give this medicine first, then call 911. If someone is with you, have the person call 911 while you give the epinephrine.

Step 2: Further treatment can be given at the emergency room, if needed. Your child also needs to be under medical supervision for at least 4 hours. This is because a second wave of serious symptoms (called a biphasic reaction) often happens.

Serious allergies can be alarming. But they're easier to recognize and treat, thanks to greater awareness and the availability of epinephrine. Make sure that any caregivers, teachers, or coaches know about your child's allergy and what to do in an emergency.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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