Anaphylaxis vs. Allergy: Knowing the Difference Can Save Your Life

Do you know the difference between typical allergic reactions and anaphylactic reactions? A typical allergic reaction occurs when your body overreacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen, and it can cause mild symptoms. Anaphylaxis, on the other hand, is a severe allergic reaction that, left untreated, can be fatal.

Understanding the differences between allergic reactions and anaphylaxis can help you know what to do in either situation—and it may help you potentially save a life. We’ve outlined the details of both reactions so you can learn the causes, symptoms and right course of action for each scenario.

Allergic Reactions

When you have an allergic reaction, your body mistakes a substance as a threat, and your immune system reacts by creating an antibody to attack the allergen. When the antibodies bind to allergy cells, the allergy cells release histamines, which causes allergy symptoms, such as:

  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Nasal congestion
  • Rashes
  • Watery, red eyes

Allergens—including pollen, mold and pet dander—can exist in your environment. Food allergies occur when your body reacts to substances, such as proteins, found in food. The most common food allergies include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

Most people who experience a typical allergic reactions can treat symptoms with antihistamines, medications that block histamine effects. Another treatment option, allergy immunotherapy, helps prevent allergic reactions by training your immune system to not overreact.

What Is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis, on the other hand, is a serious, life-threatening allergic reaction that impacts in about 1 in 50 people in America, according to the Asthma & Allergy Network. Anaphylaxis occurs when the immune system overreacts to an allergen and releases too many chemicals, sending your body into shock.

When you experience anaphylaxis, also known as anaphylactic shock, you usually experience progressive symptoms that affect more than one part of the body. Early symptoms include:

  • A runny nose
  • A skin rash
  • A general sense of not feeling well

As anaphylaxis progresses, you may begin to experience:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Feeling of doom
  • Hives or swelling
  • Hoarse voice
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Trouble breathing
  • Vomiting

Anaphylaxis can result in life-threatening cardiac arrest, so it’s critical to begin treatment as soon as possible.

Anaphylaxis Treatment

Anaphylaxis is serious, but knowing what to do beforehand can keep you calm and the situation under control. If you or someone around you is having an anaphylactic reaction:

  1. Dial 911 immediately.
  2. Assess the person’s airway. If needed, begin CPR and rescue breaths.
  3. If the person is awake, keep them calm.
  4. If the reaction was caused by an insect sting, scrape the stinger off the skin rather than pulling it out to prevent any more venom from getting into the body.
  5. Inject any emergency allergy medicine the person has on hand.
  6. If the person experiencing anaphylactic shock is having trouble breathing, medicine should not be taken by mouth.
  7. If the person is conscious, have them lie down, raise their feet about 2 feet above their heart and cover them with a coat or blanket.

After emergency treatment is provided at the hospital for anaphylaxis and you’ve recovered, it’s a good idea to schedule time with a specialist for allergy testing to learn your triggers so you can avoid them in the future.

You’ll also need to carry your injectable allergy medicine with you always. Alert your friends and family of the injectable and what to do if you have a reaction again.

Whether you need urgent care for seasonal allergies or a minor allergic reaction, or you need emergency treatment for anaphylaxis, River’s Edge Hospital’s Urgent Care Department and Emergency Room are here for you. Download this guide to learn about the services we offer.

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