Signs & Symptoms of Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially life threatening allergic reaction. A person experiencing anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention.

Read on to find out how to recognise the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis and what to do in case of an emergency.

What are severe allergies?

When someone has an allergy, it means their immune system overreacts when they encounter a particular trigger or allergen.

Allergens are usually harmless and do not cause a reaction in other people. Common allergens include pollen, animal hair, certain types of food, latex and insect stings.

When a person with an allergy comes in contact with an allergen by breathing it, touching it or consuming it, their immune system produces an antibody to attack the allergen.

This triggers a series of responses in the body which can be mild, moderate or severe. Anaphylaxis is the most severe type of allergic reaction.

Signs and Symptoms of anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis can occur rapidly and symptoms can quickly get worse. Symptoms usually appear within 20 minutes to 2 hours from when the person was exposed to the allergen.

A person experiencing anaphylaxis may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Tight throat
  • Difficulty breathing normally
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Low blood pressure
  • Facial swelling
  • Hives
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Collapsing
  • Loss of consciousness

Common Triggers

Common triggers of an anaphylactic reaction include:

  • Food – Any type of food can cause anaphylaxis. Common food allergens include tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, egg, wheat, cow’s milk and soy. Sensitive individuals may have a severe reaction from smelling or touching the food item, even if they don’t eat it.
  • Medicine – Some people are allergic to certain drugs that can be found in over the counter medication as well as prescription medication. Examples include penicillin, ibuprofen and insulin.
  • Insect bites and stings – Bee and wasp stings and ant bites are common triggers for anaphylaxis. Ticks may also trigger anaphylaxis.
  • Latex – For some people, contact with products made from latex, such as gloves or condoms, can cause a severe allergic reaction.

Exercise and anaesthetic drugs can also trigger an anaphylactic reaction. Sometimes the trigger cannot be identified and this is called idiopathic anaphylaxis.

Risk Factors

Certain factors can put a person at risk of having a more severe allergic reaction if the factors are present when the person is exposed to the allergen.

Common risk factors include:

  • Doing exercise
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Fatigue
  • Standing or walking around
  • Taking certain medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin
  • Being premenstrual or menstrual

Treatment for anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency and medical help should be called immediately if someone is experiencing the symptoms.

The most effective treatment for anaphylaxis is a dose of adrenaline, also known as epinephrine. Most people with severe allergies carry an adrenaline autoinjector on them in case of emergency.

School first aid kits and workplace first aid kits should also contain an autoinjector if there are people with severe allergies.

An adrenaline autoinjector, such as EpiPen, is designed to be used by anyone, not just medical professionals.

It could save a person’s life if they are experiencing anaphylactic shock. You should still call 000 for emergency help even if you have administered the EpiPen.

How to use an EpiPen auto injector

The EpiPen has clear visual and written instructions on it. To administer the EpiPen, follow the steps below:

  1. Lay the person on their back. For small children, you may need to hold them in your lap to keep their leg still.
  2. Hold the EpiPen in your fist, the orange end pointing down.
  3. Remove the blue safety cap from the other end.
  4. Place the orange end against the person’s outer mid thigh.
  5. Press down firmly until you hear a clicking sound.
  6. Hold in place for 3 seconds.
  7. Remove the EpiPen and gently rub the injection area.
  8. Call 000.

EpiPens can be used on adults and children over 20kg. For children between 7.5kg and 20kg, EpiPen Jnr should be used as it contains a smaller dose of adrenaline.

For small children under 7.5kg, parents should consult their doctor for advice about managing severe allergies.

Preventing Anaphylaxis

There are a number of things a person with severe allergies can do to reduce the chances of anaphylaxis. The community can also play a role in helping prevent anaphylaxis.

For people with severe allergies:

  • Avoid triggers if you know what they are.
  • Always read food labels if you have a food allergy.
  • Tell people about your allergies, including restaurant staff, colleagues and medical professionals.
  • Develop an anaphylaxis action plan with your doctor. Inform your school or workplace of this action plan.
  • Wear an identifier bracelet with your allergies. If you lose consciousness, medical personnel will be able to understand your situation better.
  • Carry an EpiPen with you everywhere, if advised so by your doctor.
  • Go for regular health checkups and follow medical advice.
  • Know how to recognise the signs of anaphylaxis and understand what to do in case of an emergency.

For school and workplace staff:

  • Ensure you have a well equipped school or workplace first aid kit.
  • Know where to buy EpiPen
  • Undergo staff training for anaphylaxis, including how to use an EpiPen.
  • Have an action plan for anaphylaxis for each person at risk.


Anaphylaxis is a very serious medical emergency. By working together, we can help keep at risk individuals safe. Whether you have a severe allergy yourself, or know someone who does, knowing how to respond in an emergency could save a life.

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