Anaphylactic Shock

What is Anaphylactic shock?

Anaphylactic shock, or anaphylaxis, is a life-threatening allergic reaction. It is a severe, whole-body allergic reaction. After initial exposure to a substance like bee sting toxin, or to specific types of food, a person's immune system becomes sensitized to that allergen. On a subsequent exposure, an allergic reaction occurs. This reaction is sudden and severe and involves the whole body.

During anaphylactic shock, tissues in different parts of the body release histamine and other substances. This causes constriction of the airways resulting in wheezing, difficulty breathing, and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as abdominal pain, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Histamine causes the blood vessels to dilate (which lowers blood pressure) and fluid to leak from the bloodstream into the tissues (which lowers the blood volume). These effects result in shock. Fluid can leak into the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs, causing pulmonary edema.

Hives and angioedema (hives on the lips, eyelids, throat, and/or tongue) often occur. Angioedema may be severe enough to block the airway. Prolonged anaphylaxis can cause heart arrhythmias.

Can ingested substances other than food cause anaphylactic shock?

Some drugs (polymyxin, morphine, x-ray dye, and others) may cause an anaphylactoid reaction (anaphylactic-like reaction) on first exposure. This is usually due to a toxic reaction, rather than the immune system mechanism that occurs with "true" anaphylaxis. The symptoms, risk for complications without treatment, and treatment are the same, however, for both types of reactions.

Anaphylaxis can occur in response to any allergen. Common causes include insect bites/stings, horse serum (used in some vaccines), food allergies, and drug allergies. Pollens and other inhaled allergens rarely cause anaphylaxis. Some people have an anaphylactic reaction with no identifiable cause.

What are the symptoms of anaphylactic shock?

Symptoms develop rapidly, often within seconds or minutes. They may include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • wheezing
  • confusion
  • slurred speech
  • rapid or weak pulse
  • blueness of the skin (cyanosis), including the lips or nail beds
  • fainting, light-headedness, dizziness
  • hives and generalized itching
  • anxiety
  • sensation of feeling the heart beat (palpitations)
  • nausea, vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • skin redness
  • nasal congestion
  • cough
What is the proper treatment for anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe disorder, which has a poor prognosis without prompt treatment. But symptoms usually resolve with appropriate therapy, underscoring the importance of prompt action.

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The information contained on this page has been gathered from the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and other sources in the public domain.

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