Anaphylaxis

What Is It?

Anaphylaxis is a severe, sometimes life-threatening, allergic reaction that occurs within minutes to several hours of exposure an allergy-causing substance (allergen). Anaphylaxis also is called anaphylactic shock.

In an allergic reaction, the body's immune system responds to the presence of an allergen by releasing histamine and other body chemicals. These chemicals cause the symptoms of allergies, which are usually mild but annoying, such as the runny nose of hay fever (allergic rhinitis) or the itchy rash of poison ivy. However, in some cases, the symptoms can be much worse and involve the entire body. Anaphylaxis is the most severe allergic reaction. In anaphylaxis, these immune chemicals cause serious skin symptoms, such as hives and swelling, as well as severe breathing problems, such as swelling in the throat, narrowing of the lower airways and wheezing). The chemicals also cause blood vessels to widen dramatically, which leads to a rapid, severe drop in blood pressure (shock). Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening medical emergency.

Although the specific allergen that triggers anaphylaxis may be different for each patient, it often can be traced to one of the following sources:

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