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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Schultz

Fear not! Anaphylaxis facts and epinephrine tips to build confidence

When people imagine a severe allergic reaction to food, many think of a face ballooning and splotchy hives covering the body as clear signs of an emergency. Pop culture has taught us in movies and shows to watch for these visual signs of anaphylaxis. In reality, anaphylaxis can look different for each person. For up to 20% of cases, symptoms may not affect the skin at all.

Learning the symptoms of anaphylaxis in a non-urgent situation could save a life. Even if you don't have food allergies yourself, chances are you know 1 in 10 adults who do live with food allergies. Or consider this - a classroom in school has approximately 2 kids with food allergies.

Notice I didn't say 'severe' food allergies? It is important to know the differences between mild and severe symptoms and the variety of ways they can present themselves.

You cannot have a mild or severe food allergy.

You can have mild or severe symptoms.

Food allergies involve the immune system going into overdrive. They are an overreaction of a person’s immune system when the body incorrectly perceives food as a threat.

The job of our immune system is to protect us from germs and diseases. When a perceived threat is ingested (for example a peanut), the immune system sees the peanut as a threat and sounds the alarms to prepare for the attack.

The immune system will trigger cells to release an antibody (which fights foreign intruders) called immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE is trying to bring the body back under control. The immune system makes IgE antibodies and IgE attaches to mast cells or basophils.

The body has a memory and if these food allergens are ingested again, the IgE antibodies will act as guards to signal a histamine response. The body releases chemicals (e.g. histamine), resulting in mild to severe symptoms.

Reactions to food can take place within minutes or even a few hours after initial ingestion.

The reactions may be mild or severe but the food allergy incidence is unique for each exposure. In other words, past incidences cannot and will not predict future symptoms. The amount of food consumed, current state of the body (does the person have illness? did they just exercise?) and other dynamic factors at play make it hard to predict how a person will react.

So how can you help a person in an urgent situation?

Recognizing symptoms is key and becoming familiar with the protocol is a great first step. Keeping an emergency care plan at your fingertips is a great best practice.

For mild symptoms, if a person experiences one symptom only, then an antihistamine is the route a doctor may suggest:

  • Itchy or runny nose

  • Itchy mouth

  • Mild itching or a few hives on skin

  • Nausea or gut discomfort