First Aid for Allergic Reactions
August 23, 2013
You’re enjoying dinner in a nice restaurant. Suddenly your lips and tongue are tingling and you begin to feel dizzy and anxious. Breathing becomes labored. What’s happening to you? Chances are you’re having an allergic reaction to something in your meal.
All allergic reactions are responses to sensitivities we may have to allergens, which are often protein substances found in foods, medications, insect and spider venom, plant material, chemicals, the air we breathe, and things we commonly touch. Allergies can be with us from birth, or suddenly develop at any age—and some are commonly outgrown as we mature. Sometimes the first exposure to an allergen produces only a mild reaction in a sensitive person, but repeated exposures result in more and more serious reactions.
How dangerous are allergies?
The reactions can range from mild (but miserable) to life-threatening. Most reactions occur soon after the exposure—or even immediately within the first two hours. Always pay attention to allergies and treat them or get medical attention right away. The most extreme and dangerous reaction is anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock—a sudden, severe reaction that can actually lead to death in as little as fifteen minutes if not treated.
What are the most common allergens?
- Food allergens: shellfish, fish, peanuts (very dangerous, especially because there is often “hidden” peanut content in many processed foods), tree nuts, tomatoes, strawberries, eggs, milk, and soy products
- Animal dander, saliva, or urine; dust mites
- Venom from bites and stings, especially bees, wasps, and some ants and spiders
- Medications, oral or injected, including insulin, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories such as aspirin and ibuprofen
- Plants and pollens, notably poison ivy, poison oak, grasses, molds, many springtime pollens
- Dyes, chemicals, metals, ingredients in soaps and cosmetics
What are the most common symptoms of allergic reactions?
- Itchy rash or hives
- Flushing of face or neck
- Tingling lips or tongue
- Swollen face, lips, eyes, or throat
- Abdominal cramping, nausea, diarrhea
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Sneezing, dripping nose, weeping, itchy eyes
- A tight feeling in the chest, difficulty breathing, asthma
- Anxiety, heart palpitations
- Loss of consciousness
Why are some people allergic to a substance when most others are not?
An allergy is an overreaction of a person’s immune system to a particular substance that it regards as a threat. What triggers one person’s allergies might not trouble another at all. People who are especially prone to allergies are said to be “atopic.” The tendency to be atopic seems to be partially genetic, as sensitivities seem to run in families—but the environment also plays a part. Whether or not the person “likes” the offending substance or its carrier has nothing to do with his allergy. A person who loves cats or dogs may sadly still develop an allergy to them, and someone who enjoys shrimp and lobster may have to avoid them at all costs. A man who lives by farming may be forced to find another occupation if he has serious reactions to the plants or animals he must work with on the farm. Children who love “pb&j” sandwiches may be dangerously allergic to peanuts. NOTE: Parents who warn you about their children’s allergy problems are not being overprotective: they’re being prudent and careful. Pay attention!
What should you do if you (or someone with you) has a sudden allergic reaction?
- Try to ID the allergen if possible and remove it from the scene.
- For a rash, bite, or sting, remove stinger if one is present, wash the site, apply a cold compress and use a hydrocortisone cream such as Benadryl. Take or administer an over-the-counter antihistamine as well, unless swallowing is hampered.
For more severe reactions:
- Call 911, then administer CPR if the person is not breathing or you can’t get a pulse.
- Have the person lie flat if possible with feet elevated
- Don’t place a pillow under the head if that tilts the head forward, as that might further constrict the airway—but a small, rolled towel under the person’s neck might make them more comfortable
- Keep them warm; cover them with a blanket or coat
- Know your loved ones allergies, whether they carry an Epi-pen or similar medication with them, and know how to use it in case they lose consciousness
How are allergies identified and treated medically?
Allergy specialists can administer tests to identify exactly what substance or substances trigger a person’s allergic reactions, and can recommend treatments. In some cases, they may be able to help the sufferer become less-sensitive to the offending substance.